Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
NO DOUBT life can be wearing. No doubt the incessant cross-cuttings and repetitions of miscellaneous music and hyperbolical adverts on Classic FM can be more wearing still. All the same, the network's regular listeners seem to require an inordinate amount of soothing: in fact, two whole hours an evening, seven days a week. Accordingly, Smooth Classics (7pm) announces itself in the hushed tones of John Brunning backed by the serene opening of the "Agnews Dey" (sic) from Faure's Requiem, which returns like a refrain over the next 120 minutes, occasionally varied by other refrains - Albinoni's (spurious) Adagio, Pachelbel's Canon, and so on - with other voices coaxing us to "relax, escape, enjoy..."

Yet, to judge from last Monday's edition, the programme's principles of selection are remarkably - and revealingly - strict. It seems to consist almost entirely of slow movements, mainly from concertos, with particularly emphasis on the violin and a recurrent penchant for the obscurer reaches of the Baroque oboe repertoire. Gentle chamber and instrumental items - a Mozart sonata adagio, a Kreisler morceau - may also be heard. But there is an evident concern to keep the choices classy and upmarket. The kind of third-hand film music and Celtic schmaltz that seems to dominate the so-miscalled Classical Charts - as Paul Gambaccini's Monday Classic Countdown reminded us yet again - is rather sedulously excluded.

But also excluded, rather more curiously, seems to be much in the way of vocal music. Operatic extracts are confined to intermezzos or songs from Lehr et al to orchestral arrangements. And, since we can assume that the ambience of Smooth Classics has been refined with all the expertise of half a century's development of commercial background music, this can only mean that the human voice is deemed too actively expressive for the show's purpose. In other words, the choice of often masterly music is not so much for its own qualities but to induce an all-enveloping mood - and, to that extent, to condition its listeners.

To what end? Doubtless a genuinely musical case could be made for a period of meditative listening as preparation for more varied programming later. Certainly, after Monday's dulcet andantes, these ears would have welcomed the wildest Balinese monkey chant or the most raving Schoenbergian expressionism. It is also true that Classic FM does tend to broadcast its most wide-ranging programmes in the Evening Concert slot from 9pm to 11pm - even if things then turn tacky, as in Classic Countdown. Or naff, as in the facetious inconsequence of John Suchet's Tuesday comic-strip style Music of the Millennium series ("only on Classic FM", forsooth!). Or infantile, as in the Wednesday comedy slot of Alan Mann who thinks it amusing to shove cracked voices saying things such as "'Allo! Clara Schumann 'ere" into the middle of bits of perfectly decent music.

Compared to these, Smooth Classics, though as bereft of intelligent commentary as almost everything else on Classic FM, sounds a haven of sweetness and light. No doubt it does, incidentally, serve the altruistic purpose of passing classics on to a wider public today. But the its manipulative aura also reminds us that the network's ultimate purpose is to use music for another end: to make more money for its paymasters, the media corporations and the car companies.