Classical: On The Air

The week on radio reviewed
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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a palpable sense of relief last month when Roger Wright, erstwhile head of BBC classical music, was appointed the new controller, Radio 3 - and not Roger Lewis, sometime of EMI and Decca, who had apparently been headhunted by the then-director of BBC Radio, Matthew Bannister.

To those who recalled Lewis's boast, at the 1994 Gramophone Awards lunch, of having delivered plainchant to a business environment (it was the year of those chart-topping monks), a translation to Classic FM seemed far more appropriate - which turned out to be his fall-back position all along.

Since the rejection of Lewis was widely interpreted as a defeat for the more populist tendencies of the outgoing regime under Bannister, Wright will doubtless have meanwhile been deluged with letters from concerned listeners pleading for reversals of the more dismal recent downgradings and schedules to come. Certainly, CD Review badly needs a reinjection of musical authority, while the excellent Spirit of the Age surely deserves a reprieve from fragmentation and demotion to a mere monthly early-music magazine - still more, those essential, yet threatened series, such as the informative Music Matters, the wide-ranging Sunday World Music programme, and that lively youth slot, The Music Machine.

Not least, Wright should urgently relocate that once-flagship series, Composer of the Week (how about pinching an hour of the garrulously inconsequential early-evening In Tune?) At present, this goes out on weekdays at noon, with repeats now pushed back to midnight so that listeners in full-time employment have little chance to hear it, unless they are insomniacs. This has been a particular pity over the past fortnight, when Michael Oliver has been charting a canny course through the vast, little-known, uneven yet often striking output of the 20th-century Italian master, Malipiero. But it turns out that Wright only assumes his new post when his old one has been filled and, rather ominously, this falls under the authority of Matthew Bannister in his new position of chief executive of BBC Production. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, one makes the best of what Radio 3 currently has on offer - grateful, in last weekend's well-planned Italia mini-series in Sounding the Century, for the chance to catch such rarities as Dallapiccola's radiant Tre Laudi and Casella's resonant ballet suite La Giara. But a little depressed by the humdrum course of Saturday afternoon's Artists' Question Time -- partly because its audiences seem incapable of coming up with questions more imaginative than "What was your worst moment as a performer?" or "Don't you just hate the critics?".

Since the response of even the most celebrated performers on the panels to the latter question is invariably yes with knobs on, it was rather refreshing earlier last Saturday to hear a rare counterblast. Best of 3, a Radio 3 pick of the week selected and scripted by Michael White of the Independent on Sunday, has proved one of the more cogent of the new series. And, instead of dismissing the particularly virulent patch of critic-bashing he included from the previous week's Artists' Question Time with a deferential shrug, he chose to come back with a spirited defence of the calling.

A pity he stopped short of reminding the justly famous artists doing the denouncing that they might never have been heard of but for the reviewers. After all, as outgoing controller, Nicholas Kenyon has often asked (without evident irony): Where would Radio 3 itself be without its critics?