Music on radio

Bayan Northcott endures a bad experience on Radio 3
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The Independent Culture
Pity the poor announcers of live concerts on today's Radio 3. Gone are the years when they were simply required to bring the voice beautiful to scripts expertly prepared, not to say double-checked for errors, by the Music Division's old presentation department. Under controller Nicholas Kenyon's "user-friendly" dispensation, not only do they often have to cobble together their own material from programme notes and the morning rehearsal, but they are also evidently enjoined to ad lib personal responses to the pieces just heard during the ensuing applause. Not surprisingly, the result tends to be a persistent trickle of misinformation, usually minor - such as telling us that Alma Mahler's second husband, Walter Gropius, was an "artist" (rather than an architect), or that Stravinsky's funeral took place in St Mark's, Venice (it didn't, it was actually at Santi Giovanni e Paolo) - but avoidable, all the same, if presenters only had time and back-up.

When Geoffrey Baskerville, who is currently presenting The Sibelius Experience from Glasgow as part of Radio 3's "Sounding the Century", told us last Monday that the young Benjamin Britten did not much care for Sibelius, at least he was quoting from the programme guide by Peter Franklin of Oxford University that Radio 3 had published to go with the series. But Dr Franklin himself ought to have known that Britten's attitude changed.

Pressed for a centenary tribute in 1965, he wrote: "I must confess that, for many many years, the works of the Finnish master meant little to me. Then, by chance, hearing a performance of the Fourth Symphony, I became interested; and since I have taken every opportunity to study his scores and to hear authoritative performances. I find his conception of sound extremely personal and original, and his musical thinking most stimulating..." Indeed, in the years following this epiphany, which seems to have occurred in the late 1950s, Britten apparently thought of conducting Sibelius's Third and Sixth Symphonies himself.

Interestingly, Sibelius, who spent much of his last 30 years by the radio, trawling the European airwaves for new music, is said to have been impressed by Peter Grimes. Whether by chance or affinity, that score certainly harbours some Sibelian evocations of atmosphere and turns of harmony, and the opera's "Four Sea Interludes" would have made a suggestive opening to Monday's programme.

Unaccountably, the planners had opted instead for Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, a work squarely out of the Mahler-Shostakovich tradition, with a touch or two of Stravinsky, but no audible connection with Sibelius whatever. Baskerville's faintly desperate attempt to point a parallel on the grounds that both composers submitted personal feeling to "purely musical form" could have equally well applied to about half of Western tradition. But this was as nothing compared to the transports that greeted the conclusion of Sibelius's Second Symphony: "And what a great affirmation those brass chords bring - majestic, sonorous, thrilling... and the brass emerging as the heroes of the hour..." and so on and on.

Granted, Osmo Vanska, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's new chief conductor, does have some interesting ideas on how the music of his great compatriot should go, the audience in Glasgow's City Hall certainly sounded enthusiastic, and Baskerville was actually quite restrained compared with the post-performance paeans we have routinely had from certain other regular presenters over recent seasons. But do radio listeners, whether old or new, really want this kind of guff and gush; do they need to be told so hyperbolically what to think and feel? And, come to that, is Sibelius any more or less of an "Experience" than Schubert, Stockhausen or Suppe? Merely asking because, as a doubtlessly cynical old pro, I am evidently out of touch. Why, my last naughty niggle a couple of months back about Radio 3's current obsession with titling and packaging brought a personal postcard from the Controller himself: "Hilarious! Well, we don't design these series for you."