Classical: On The Air

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MENTION COMPOSER groups, and for most people it would probably be the St Petersburg Five and Les Six that spring to mind. Less likely would be the Frankfurt Group, unless you happened to be an English music buff.

The phenomenon of such comradely groups of composers is in any case an odd one. For many composers, and indeed other artists, creating is a lonely business, and other practitioners, even if admired, need to be kept at arm's length in order to preserve stylistic and creative integrity. If members of the Petersburg Five and Les Six found common cause early in their careers, they ultimately developed away from each other, at least as composers.

In contrast, the Frankfurt Group retained, for the most part, not only their mutual friendships but also certain shared compositional and artistic characteristics, as could be judged in a fascinating concert on Radio 3 last week by the BBC Concert Orchestra under various conductors. The most famous of the group, and indeed by some way the most powerfully individualistic, Percy Grainger, proved an exception. His extraordinarily wide horizons, from folk music settings to free music, were not typical of the rest. But even so, in a piece like To a Nordic Princess, Grainger's tribute to his wife, you hear certain elements which were shared by the whole group, indeed, which Grainger may have originated. Within such circles as the Frankfurt Group it is almost impossible to pin down influences.

Perhaps one should not expect too many revelations when a body of largely forgotten music like that of the Frankfurt composers is offered for re-examination. But on this occasion, one figure - Grainger excepted - did certainly stand out and gently shame us for his neglect. In the earlier part of this century there were scores of pieces written under the title "Idyll" which generally didn't live up to that title, but Balfour Gardiner's Berkshire Idyll, beautifully played under Vernon Handley, added a dark layer of irony to the pastoral convention. Having taped the piece, I immediately had to listen again, and was not disappointed. This is anything but comfortable music, though its depths and subtleties are discreet, as indeed in the touching Matthew Arnold setting, Philomela.

More celebrated for a time, perhaps, than any of the other members of the group, Cyril Scott did not sustain his reputation, and his First Piano Concerto, vigorously played by Stephen Coombs, with Stephen Bell conducting, indicated possible reasons. The music was simply too reliant on repetitive gestures, and lacked the cogency of that improvisatory composer of genius, Delius, for whom all the Frankfurt composers had a predilection. Delius, indeed, could be heard behind the style of both Quilter, whose engaging music for Where The Rainbow Ends opened the programme, and Norman O'Neill, the least-known figure in the group. His setting of Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci was, nevertheless, charming in its ebb and flow, and well worth a hearing.

Earlier in the afternoon, novelist Michele Roberts had raided that treasure house of delightful surprises and artistic revelations, the BBC Sound Archive, in search of material concerning remarkable women musicians of the century. Unforgettable was Dame Ethel Smyth in a Thirties studio broadcast describing her famous conducting gig in Holloway Prison, where she had been sent for tossing a brick through a judge's window in a fit of feminist zeal. Hearing some inmates singing her suffragette song, she leant out of her window to conduct them with her toothbrush - a doughty warrior, indeed, as Sir Thomas Beecham put it.

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