Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
THE CANADIAN pianist Glenn Gould is a natural subject for radio. Not only was his career as a player launched by recordings for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but he was also an innovative creator of radio documentaries and what he called "contrapuntal radio", or what most people would call radio collages.

Since his death, at the age of 50, in 1982, Gould's reputation has steadily grown, not only with the music-loving public, but among fellow professionals. In David Dubal's book of interviews with pianists, Gould's name crops up in terms not just of respect but reverence, and more often than almost any other pianist's.

Much of this admiration is due to his technical prowess, his mechanical ability. In the five-hour sequence devoted to Gould on Radio 3 last Thursday, it emerged that when he recorded Mozart's Sonatas, the producer suggested he should sight-read those he hadn't prepared. Apparently, they were issued without any edits.

Like most good stories, this one is probably exaggerated. For one thing, what does sight-read mean exactly? But artistically, Gould was always controversial, rather like a perpetual adolescent whose gifts were unmistakable, but whose use of them was misapplied.

Maggie Cole, the harpsichordist, firmly identified some of his tempi in Bach's Goldberg Variations, whether maniacally fast or maddeningly slow, as extremes that were only redeemed by clarity on the one hand or a sense of line on the other.

There's no doubt that Gould made you listen. The range of his repertoire, too, from Byrd and Orlando Gibbons to Schoenberg and Webern, shows unusual confidence. But there's not much doubt, either, that a lot of the attention he's received is because of his eccen- tricity - the fads, the hypochondria, the reclusiveness, and the decision, in 1964, not to give any more live concerts. He made good copy.

The cult of personality has rather taken over Composer of the Week, so that Donald Macleod's ironic delivery of the gossipy scripts sounds like a bedtime story with a few pieces of music as interludes.

With relatively minor composers such as Milhaud, Grainger and William Boyce, the tone of "don't take this too seriously" is perhaps understandable. But this week it has been Berio, with whom such an approach might have risked indiscretion, since Berio is still very much alive.

So Macleod has had an "expert" to help him out (Graham Fawcett) and any suspicion of irreverence has been banned by a solemn dialogue, casting the listener into the role of humble eavesdropper.

A hundred years hence, a presenter might characterise Berio as one of the great "trendies" of his time. Meanwhile, Fawcett described him as a "culturalist".

Another word that reflects more on the person who uses it than it means to anyone else is "musical." What on earth do you have to do to be a "musical" player? Let the music flow unimpeded for one thing, which is just what Thomas Trotter did on the organ of Eton College chapel on Saturday evening.

One of his specialities is playing transcriptions of orchestral pieces - a trick to catch the interest of people who don't know that much about organ music - and he sailed through Elgar's first Pomp and Circumstance March as if it were good enough to enjoy just as it came, without any pumping up for extra effect.