Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
WHATEVER THE state of the chat-versus-music balance on Radio 3, one kind of mix does peculiarly well by the network. This is the one in which an alert practising musician talks to, or about, others, in between presenting their music, currently represented by Voices, The Piano, and Opera in Action. It's an artifice, because when musicians meet in reality the conversation is rather different - fees and contracts, usually. But, when it's done well, it shares insights and strikes sparks in a way that interviews between unequals rarely do.

Voices has a subtlety of its own because it is presented by the pianist Iain Burnside, who specialises in playing with singers. The nature of the role guarantees a lack of sycophancy. There's nothing like working at close quarters with the limits of human lungs and the struggles of verbal articulation to make you value a job done well.

This week's subject (Monday and Tuesday), the German baritone Olaf Bar, had a few things to say in return about an accompanist's work. Bar sprang to fame when he won a song competition in London. It brought him a well- remembered recital in the Wigmore Hall, in which he was accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons, who had been on the jury and offered to play. Nothing like starting at the top.

It was only Bar's second recital; his first, a few weeks earlier, had been to practise for it. But it opened more doors, including EMI's, when the company promptly recorded him and Parsons in Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe, which had been on the programme.

At the time, he thought that whatever happened at least he'd seen London and experienced the West (it was 1986, and he was from East Germany). The dates multiplied. Bar was generous to the memory of Parsons, who had taught him the arts of survival on the road. If you don't like the place you are in, Parsons would say, take a book or have a good bottle of wine; that's all part of life too, and how can you sing about life without experiencing it to the full? Parsons remained a musical mentor, happy to try new approaches, and pointing him towards new repertoire.

If you expected a bland tale of happy endings, there was a twist. After five years, it nearly all fell apart. Bar had not expected his success, but he soon grew complacent. There was stress, and problems with the voice, and at one point he wanted to give up. Friends and a sympathetic agent helped him through, so that he was able to understand the changes in attitude and technique that he needed to make. Now he thinks that the experience gave him insight he had lacked. Listening to his early recordings, which to most of us are marvels of musicality and tonal beauty, he can hear the flaws. It takes a trusted interviewer to draw out thoughts like that.

Back at the front line, Mixing It (Saturday) explored the well-hyped album by DJs who have remixed music by Steve Reich. It would be nice to think that the session was taken to heart by listeners who refuse to accept this kind of work as seriously creative. Even schools music programmes deal with remixing now; Wednesday's Music File (BBC2) featured the making of a classical-based dance track. But the Reich project itself was a bit muddled: what's the point, except homage, of sampling and looping music that is already based on samples and loops? A more state-of-the-art perspective is emerging on BBC2's new series Acetate (Mondays, 11.15pm), a useful smoke-free guide for people who prefer their late nights at home.