Music: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
CONSIDERING THAT the human brain is currently suspected of being about the most complex organ in the universe, and that musical communication seems to be one of its most elaborate functions, the makers of last Sunday's edition of Settling The Score on Radio 3 had their work cut out to convey the scope of it all in a mere 45 minutes. Devised by Nicholas Cook, produced by Antony Pitts and entitled "Of Sound Mind", the programme duly launched itself in a concatenation of bells, voices, snippets of Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky (below), resounding from far and near, overlaid and all clamouring for attention.

Yet it gradually emerged that we were being conveyed, section by section, through a hearing of Stravinsky's clangourous ballet score for voices and percussion, Les Noces, with the sections serving in turn as focus for the work's sources and conception, its structure and scoring, its performance - with clips of rehearsals under Stravinsky himself - and its reception. A third, at least intermittent, continuity was provided by comments on brain function from the neurologist Susan Greenfield, and on musical process from the composer and performer Paul Webster.

Meanwhile, other authorities, including the philosopher of music Peter Kivy, the cognitive scientist John Sloboda, the conductor Robert Craft and the pianolist Rex Lawson, were simply summoned forth as if by intercom - "Calling Stephen Walsh, biographer of Stravinsky" - a nifty production device which at least enabled listeners to keep in touch with who was who in the babble.

Whatever may be thought about the idea of superimposing speech - or, indeed, other music - upon passages of a great score, and whatever some of the speakers may have felt about having their arguments snipped up and cross-cut in unforeseen contexts, the result, at the very least, served to convey the dynamic nature of musical communication: the way composers', performers' and listeners' minds work. So it seemed a pity that this particular series does not run to repeats; a second hearing would undoubtedly have enabled listeners to catch up with the more fleeting allusions and insights. But then the whole matter of what does, or does not, get repeated on Radio 3 is surely ripe for reconsideration by its new Controller.

For instance, another chance to hear last Tuesday's relay of Quincuncx (1959) by Elisabeth Lutyens would be valuable. Doubtless the score's demand for two singers and huge orchestra, including mandolin, guitar and Wagner tubas, has contributed to its scandalous neglect over the last 30 years. Doubtless the uncompromising seriousness of its post-serial language is likely to remain deeply unfashionable for the foreseeable future. But there was more here than anyone could possibly take in at one go - not least, a fascinating tension between the work's severely architectonic symmetry of form and gestural fluidity of expression from moment to moment, complemented by an equally striking tension between its austerely unified harmony and the fantastical variety of orchestral colour.

And if the keening central unaccompanied baritone setting of Sir Thomas Browne reaffirmed Lutyens's English roots, much of the rest of the score sounds closer to such mid-century Continental contemporaries as Dallapiccola and Boulez.

A sometime Continental composer himself, Matthias Bamert drew a solicitous performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, confirming the score as one of Lutyens's central achievements. May we hope for a few more such useful disinterrings from that largely unexplored, output before her centenary comes round in 2006?

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