Classical Sight Readings: Saved for the nation

Radio 3 realises the worth of its output, while a sleuth unearths a rare gem
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The Independent Culture
FIRST THE good news. Radio 3's one and only musical current affairs programme, Music Matters, is to be reprieved. Its axing was a typically daft Birt-Bannister idea, obediently rubber-stamped by the former controller of Radio 3, Nicholas Kenyon. Its reprieve has not yet been formally announced, but since I prised confirmation of the event from Kenyon's successor, Roger Wright, I am inclined to believe it.

As Wright observed, it would have been ludicrous for a music channel to have no programme on which musical issues could be discussed. The ill- fated World Music slot still looks a likely candidate to go, but Wright promises that world music will always be strongly present in the schedules, in unghettoised form. We'll be watching, Roger.

And now for the bad news. Unless some extraordinary alchemy takes place in the editing room, this Sunday's edition of Music Matters will be a real snoozeroo. I know this, because I was there in the audience at the Barbican where it was recorded. It wasn't necessarily a bad idea to convene music's top movers and shakers for a short, sharp think-in about this Government's policies, but somehow the thing never sparked.

Neither of the debate's two direct hits ruffled the emollient Alan Howarth, the late-reformed Tory who now represents the Department of Culture. He laughed off the plausible suggestion that Tony Blair is secretly glad that Covent Garden is now dark - it doesn't fit the Blairite image at all - and he insisted that the Arts Council's imminent devolution of power to the regions was a perfectly sensible development, rather than the cock- up it will shortly prove to be. He said more than once, that it was "not for him to tell the Council what to do", as though the dear old arm's- length principle still existed. Does the Arts Council itself still exist? Not for very much longer.

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AN AUTOGRAPHED letter from Claudio Monteverdi - what am I bid? Do I hear 50? Sixty? Seventy? No, unless you click in at pounds 80,000 this morning you won't get a sniff of one of the only two Monteverdi letters free of museum captivity.

The trade in musical manuscripts is booming, and today's auction at Sotheby's is as good an indication as any of the way the wind is blowing.

There's an autographed Schumann song-cycle estimated at pounds 120,000, and a stash of Diaghilev's letters from pounds 30,000. There's a Haydn letter for pounds 12,000, and one from the doomed and syphilitic Schubert starting at pounds 20,000. The last of these sales saw a single page of Mozart go for pounds 88,000, and a complete Brahms manuscript for pounds 441,000. But small spenders can also play: today, there are missives from Liszt starting at a mere pounds 400, while for around pounds 700 you can walk off with a Caruso self-caricature as a samurai, or a musical billet-doux from Puccini. You could spend a lot more than that on an Armani suit.

Last year, quite by accident, I stumbled into this game. Poking around in a junk shop on an island off the coast of Estonia, I found a cache of piano music that had been collected and bound by a St Petersburg enthusiast in the 1820s. It was a wonderful moment: opening the thick, hand-printed pages was like uncorking an ancient perfume. The whole lot didn't cost me much, and it later proved not to be worth a lot, either, but ever since that day I have been hooked.

So is Sotheby's book expert, Stephen Roe, a trained musicologist who has turned his Johann Christian Bach specialism to excellent account. One of today's prize catches - an autograph manuscript of a JC Bach aria - owes its presence entirely to Roe's acumen. "I and a colleague were looking through a huge collection of manuscripts, and this was in my pile. It had no name or identification, but I instantly recognised the handwriting, and realised it was a manuscript which had been lost since the end of the 18th century."

He couldn't dream of buying it himself - estimates start at pounds 25,000 - but that's not the point; for him - it's the thrill of the chase.

And also the closeness that it brings with composers. Manuscript scores are far more important to Roe than mere letters: "With this aria, for example, you can tell very clearly how he wanted the music to sound, from the way he wrote it out. It's a real contact with the man." Roe is the musicologists' Hercule Poirot. He it was who first spotted Clara Schumann's calligraphy threaded through the manuscript of Robert Schumann's piano concerto, and he's also a noted sniffer-out of fakes. He helped to rumble the recent Haydn "find of the century" which conned the world's top experts and inspired - like the "Hitler Diaries" - an exultant editorial in The Times.

Fakes, he says, generally fall into one of two categories: those which are designed to deceive, and those which are merely the product of some great composer's copyist, rather than of the man himself. Bach, Stravinsky, and Mendelssohn all come into the latter category, with Mozart fils and pere being equally hard to distinguish.

Spotting a fake, says Roe, is like looking through a window that has frosted over. "One corner starts to evaporate, and the whole thing becomes crystal clear."

What next? His dream is to find the autographed manuscripts to Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and his "Hammerklavier", and he lives in hope. "If a work by JC Bach, lost since the 18th century, can turn up in a south London warehouse just because I happen to wander in... well, anything can happen. And I want to be there if it does."

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