Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
"WHAT MOZART did in 1784" is the worst sort of Radio 3 turn-off. The subject of this week's Morning Performance series, it tells people already in the know that the programmes are going to be packed with good things. After all, the piano concertos of Mozart are generally reckoned to be one of the high points of both pleasure and quality that the Western classical tradition has produced. Somehow, in that one year, he managed to compose no fewer than six of them, and all because he needed to make a living and his own brilliant piano playing had caught on among the listening classes of Vienna.

These six, then, were the backbone of the week's listening. Nor was that everything, because Mozart had enough energy and time in the same year to come up with a few little extras such as the Quintet for piano and wind, the stupendously beautiful Serenade for 13 wind instruments, and three of his best string quartets.

In total, this is one of the greatest creative feats of any time, in any art form. To our age, which expects its composers to struggle for months or years over a half-hour work of substance, Mozart's profusion is almost incomprehensible. And he was only 28. Yet this feast of musical delights was packaged up for radio purposes to look like the dullest sort of history lesson.

I was never a fan of Sound Stories, the daily Radio 3 strand that Morning Performance has replaced - it was too often patronising or contrived or poorly put together. But every so often it hit on a good idea, and made an effort, however fallible, to draw in its potential audience. Whereas here really was one of the great sound stories of all time, left for us to pick up if we happened to have already chosen to listen.

Meanwhile Composer of the Week, reinstalled by supposed public demand at the unfriendly time of 9am (don't any of the pressure groups have to work?), carries on with the old successful formula. This too is historically driven, but it has been running so long that everybody knows what to expect - usually a familiar name seen from a fresh perspective.

They don't come more familiar than Beethoven, the current subject, nor fresher than yesterday's installment, which found an hour's worth of unlikely connections with Britain. There was some cheating. The main work, a rarely heard piano concerto written for a London publisher, was just an arrangement of Beethoven's extremely famous and completely un-British Violin Concerto.

The ear-openers were his arrangements of Scottish and Irish songs, not so much for their quality - competent and safe - as for what they show about attitudes to his raw material. Beethoven's approach was cheerfully disrespectful of any local context: grab them, bring them home and turn them into German songs with exotic tunes.

It makes a surprising parallel to the present-day attitudes on show at the Mercury Music Prize awards (Tuesday, BBC2, Radio 1). And for the first time, two classical musicians reached the shortlist, and one of them actually won - though not with a classical album. Both Talvin Singh and Thomas Ades fill their music with external references. Ades, like Beethoven, rather grandly absorbs them in his own style, while Singh makes a style out of different traditions meeting on equal terms. Quite possibly this is one of the more subtle reasons why Ades didn't win, just as it's one of the reasons why nobody usually bothers with Beethoven's Scottish songs.