Classical: On The Air
Friday 06 August 1999
BBC2's series Masterworks: Six Pieces of Britain is now well underway, presenting considered accounts if six individual masterpieces by 20th- century British composers, and this week also marked the first showing of six short collaborative "films for listening" in the same channel's Sound on Film.
Britten's serenade for tenor, horn and strings was the subject of the latest offering in Masterworks, and the film closed with a beautifully, if at the same time somewhat monotonously sung performance by Ian Bostridge. His white notes warming to vibrato became an expressive cliche, and it was ironic that among a number of revealing comments from Britten himself there should have been his well-known observation: "I loathe the so-called beautiful voice - it's like an overripe peach which says nothing".
Still, Sir Colin Davis and members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with the admirable horn of Timothy Brown, provided lovely support in the evocative surroundings of one of Britten's favourite Suffolk churches, Blythburgh.
Director Jonathan Haswell's approach to his subject was a rewarding one, if at times rather casually focused. Much information was yielded from publisher and musicologist Donald Mitchell's account of the composer's whispered confession: "Night and silence, these are the things that matter most to me."
To clips of the great man himself conducting. But one sometimes looked for more searching comment. What was it that made the composer's setting of English words so new and so absolutely right? Auden thought it unparalleled. Details would have been welcome.
The ubiquitous Michael Berkeley, who did his customary assured job presenting, was also to be seen introducing Sound On Film. The place of music in the cinema and on TV has also provoked plenty of comment. Its expressive significance can very easily be overwhelmed by the visual images, and here, filmmakers and composers had been encouraged to produce work in which the visual and musical elements were in perfect equilibrium.
The subject matter ranged widely from the frank surrealism of Tim Holt and composer John Woolrich's Something to Make You Sing, in which Heath- Robinson-ish machines are given voices, to Ian Cottage and Roger Redgate's Igloo, a haunting score for a mini-drama about survival in an icy landscape.
Equally diverse were the musical approaches adopted. Unprepared listeners might have been forgiven for wondering what composing had actually taken place in Woolrich's film, or Miranda Pennell and Barry Adamson's exploration of the inner lives of office workers in Nightworks, for the film action's natural sounds were used to create something of a musique concrete symphony.
More obviously musical was Paul Englishby's collage of composed material and recorded football chants to chart rather touchingly the extraordinary world of a football crowd's musical activity in Michael Grisby's The Score.
Engaging, too, was Margaret Williams and Eleanor Alberger's story of the arrival in England of two Caribbean orphans. In fact, this was a thoroughly worthwhile project, sometimes uneven in quality, but bold in concept and often imaginatively carried through.
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