CLASSICAL: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
SO farewell, then, Sounding the Millennium, last gasp of Radio 3's vast Sounding the Century project - and not without regrets. One of the virtues of this BBC Singers-centred series in various church acoustics over the last three months has been to remind us of the advantages of trans-historical programme planning: of meaningfully juxtaposing music from different periods - as first coherently developed during the controllership of Sir William Glock back in the Sixties, and long before anyone had heard of "post-modernism".

It is not just that such an approach, imaginatively pursued, offers a defence against the kind of market-driven packaging, from "Breakfast Baroque" to "New Age Spirituality", that can all too easily insinuate itself into the schedules even of public-service broadcasting, but that the specific mix of certain of the recent programmes has inspired some striking new commissions.

Early in the series, the Danish composer, Bo Holten, brought forth a vibrantly strange new choral In Nomine, combining medieval canonic techniques with those harmonic clashes known as "false relations" beloved of 16th- century English composers. Then, in November, Robin Holloway countered what he called the "flocculent pinkness" of the French sacred music in his programme with the fiercely austere setting of the anonymous 15th- century poem Woefully Arrayed, as though to remind us that true faith is not just a matter of beautiful thoughts, but of hard choices.

Whether last Sunday's final concert (broadcast live from Ely Cathedral on BBC 2 and Radio 3) achieved quite the intended climax, is more debatable. The basic idea was evidently to field both a "period" and a modern ensemble - the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group respectively - in contrasting works, then to combine them for a new commission from Mark-Anthony Turnage, all under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle no less. Reporting in last Monday's Independent from the cathedral's "chilly climate, glaring television lights and unhelpful sight-lines," Lynne Walker surmised that viewers and listeners at home had the better time of it.

As far as Haydn's brazen Te Deum from the BBC Singers and OAE in mid- cathedral was concerned, this seemed true enough. But Oliver Knussen's ornate Two Organa from the BCMG in the left apse came over in curiously sideways sound. And Turnage's About Time was further complicated not only by his placing four BCMG brass players aloft in Ely's famous octagon, but by his acceptance of the creative challenge of the BCMG playing at modern concert pitch and the OAE at "period" pitch about a quarter-tone lower.

Yet Turnage's style has never so far seemed in need of such "experimental" tunings, the odd jazz-derived blue note aside. And while he dutifully resorted to slips and slides to dramatise the difference between the two pitch levels, the effect over the air was of a typical Turnage interplay of fanfares and funky dance rhythms played by a rather badly out-of-tune school orchestra.

As for the claim, several times repeated during the broadcast (though not by Turnage himself), that nothing like it had been attempted before, this could easily be refuted. Elisabeth Lutyens already combined early and modern instrumental groups in her Tears of Night (1971); Gyorgi Ligeti already deployed two string groups tuned a quarter-tone apart in his Ramifications (1969); and, of course, Charles Ives was pioneering spatial groupings and funny tunings all of 80 years ago. Too often these days, Radio 3 presenters seem to prefer sensational half-truths to the sober facts.

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