music on radio

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The Independent Culture
Give a dog a bad name was a series of four 10-minute programmes on Radio 3 last week in which the ubiquitous David Owen Norris rehabilitated tarnished reputations. At least, that's what the continuity announcer said he was doing. Norris's habitual style is so heavily ironic, you're never quite sure who or what he is mocking - himself, the subject, or the listener. Is he, like any normal human being, riddled with insecurity, uncertain of commitment, or is he far above us all, and teasing us? His first subject was Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which The Independent's Stephen Johnson defended. It's hard to believe Norris's claim that he had never actually heard the piece until he was 44, but it was a nice surprise, after a colourful sampling of vox pop, to find out that, when he did, he thought the music was dreadful.

Later in the week, Nigel Kennedy came in for assessment. Norris had heard him - playing the Elgar Sonata, and quite marvellously, he thought. Nobody suggested that Kennedy was anything but a very good player. It was more a question of his judgement about repertoire and presentation, not to mention his deliberately slipped English. But Kennedy is not the only classically trained musician to play Jimi Hendrix, and the jazz critic Brian Priestley thought Kennedy's version for violin and double-bass of Duke Ellington's "Black Brown and Beige" a remarkable achievement, considering the original was a band number. The Times's Richard Morrison said that Kennedy was the best British violinist today, and Klaus Tennstedt, who recorded the Brahms Concerto with him, said he was among the very best anywhere. But Norris's parting shot was at Kennedy's uncomfortable assumption of slang, as when Kennedy described himself as "dangerously close to being a reactionary old git". "Does anyone say `git' any more?" Norris asked. Yes indeed they do.

Plenty of reactionary old gits listen to Choirworks, I imagine, and last Sunday's programme offered a guide to the high points of Anglican church music of the 18th and 19th centuries, with Jeremy Summerly interviewing Dr Harry Bramma, director of the Royal School of Church music. Bramma is also organist at All Saints, Margaret Street, the High Church cathedral of Oxford Circus, so you might have expected him to be a bit precious. In fact, he was plain-speaking, and most of the music he introduced was very grand - for really throughout this period composers took church feast- days as opportunities for concerts and wrote symphonically. The music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley's Evening Canticles in E unhesitatingly draws on all the resources of the secular style of the 1840s. If that seems discordant with the words of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, then sacred art in Europe has always interpreted divine mysteries in terms of the contemporary world, though that doesn't alter the fact that, up to the Counter-Reformation, there was a style of vocal polyphony that was exclusively sacred.

Just before the end of Choirworks, Bramma paid tribute to the outstanding work of two church choirs in particular, St Barnabas, Dulwich and Chingford parish church, and there was a lively collage of interviews with their members. St Barnabas has a choir of no fewer than 70 boys, girls, men and women - more than the congregation of many churches. Whoever thinks of Anglican church music as drab, or as pious hooting, should have heard their vigorous singing.

At the other end of the day, in Sacred and Profane on Sunday morning, the Rev Alan Walker visited the Coptic Church of St Mark in Kensington, whose large congregation of 500 regulars is drawn from both the Egyptian and the Sudanese populations of London. One unusual feature of their liturgical music is the evocative tinkling of small finger cymbals. Their nasal style of chanting, slithering about in micro-intervals, recalls the sound of the muezzin. And, as Muslims remove their shoes on entering a mosque, so Copts do the same when they take Communion.

Things sacred and profane have also featured in the noonday Composers of the Week, devoted to luminaries and alumni of the Schola Cantorum. Vincent d'Indy founded the Schola, with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant, initially for the study of church music, though it soon widened its scope and became a rival to the Paris Conservatoire. Albert Roussel, retired from the navy, found himself a professor after only four years as a student and taught Erik Satie, a mature student who was his senior by three years. The Schola did a lot to revive interest in Renaissance and Baroque music, which was the theme of Tuesday's programme, beginning with a tonally devious and seductive prelude to a suite by d'Indy, scored for two flutes and a trumpet. Today's programme ends with Roussel's Fourth Symphony, which is appropriate, because Roussel was one of the Schola's finest products and this work is a masterpiece, saying a lot as concisely as possible.

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