A chameleon quality

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The Independent Culture
Just before nine o'clock on Sunday mornings, a musician who's due to appear in one of the following week's programmes on Radio 3 is invited to give a brief preview, their Choice of Three, selected from everything on offer. Last Sunday, John Lill not only chose more than three programmes, but found time for a welcome side-swipe at the ghastly Radio Times - my adjective. Lill called it "ironically named" because it allotted to radio listings only 16 pages out of 136. Radio Times - or was it Classic FM? - came up with a scoop for Bank Holiday Monday: a programme in which Diana Ambache presented the story of Clara Schumann - "Sister of Robert and friend of Brahms". No wonder old Papa Wieck opposed their marriage.

According to the Radio 3 listings for the same day, Richard Rodney Bennett's outlook on life and music "remains as individual as it was during his student years". Yet in the actual programme (Composer of the Week) the engaging presenter, Gerard McBurney, a former pupil of Bennett, spoke of his "chameleon quality", while Bennett's former teacher, Howard Ferguson, recounted how, just before young Richard left the Academy, he had asked him if he was at all worried by his ability to write in any style. "Not at all," replied the precocious wonder-boy, "I enjoy it!"

Ferguson, of course, was worried, but then he's a different sort of person. No slouch himself in the craft of composition, he seems to have given it up a few decades ago in favour of scholarly editorial work. In fact, Michael Hurd in the New Grove Dictionary categorically says that Ferguson decided he had said all he wanted to say and "courageously determined to write no more".

Ferguson sounded an awfully nice man on the programme - a real gent - and his scholarly work is well respected, yet I'm not sure how anyone can decide they have said all that's in them. After all, you don't know unless you try, and, as Martha Argerich once said about performing, the important thing is to release the unconscious. Whether or not you have anything to say is rather like looks - best judged by others.

But then again, money could just possibly have something to do with the fidelity of one's muse, and if you were commissioned, as Bennett recently was by BT, to write a piece that was to be played by 17 orchestras, your compositional tongue might be loosened quite considerably.

Some of the biggest money for a composer like Bennett is in film music, and he's written scores for a good few. But though he may be a chameleon, the type of films he's written for, which include Far from the Madding Crowd, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Murder on the Orient Express, tells you something about his character as a composer. Even Calendar (not to be confused with Jazz Calendar), a work for chamber ensemble which in Monday's programme McBurney described as one of Bennett's most rigorous pieces, has a courteous way of leading the ear from one thing to another and an elegant sense of timing. The trouble is, that kind of musical fluency can be counter-productive, for the listener soon cottons on, takes it for granted, and mentally switches off.

Organs played by Handel are as popular and as suspect as rooms slept in by Elizabeth I. Deep in the heart of Metroland is the Church of St Lawrence Whitchurch, Little Stanmore, sumptuously rebuilt by the Duke of Chandos, who employed Handel on terms that are a bit unclear. Anyway, Handel must have played the organ there, and though substantially altered over the years, it's recently been restored to something like its original form. On Monday afternoon, the producer Lindsay Kemp drew an attractive picture of the place and introduced a recital by Timothy Roberts, who breezed through two of Handel's concertos and also played two voluntaries from a set of 10 by John Bennett - Handel was a subscriber to the first edition of Bennett's publication. The organ itself, it must be admitted, sounded as plain as dry bread.

Which cannot be said of the early 16th- century composer Hugh Aston, dismissed in Handel's day as "uncouth". Aston is usually a mere name in history books, where he's mentioned as the composer of one of those isolated landmark pieces, a hornpipe for keyboard anticipating Elizabethan music for the virginals. But Aston was also a contemporary of John Taverner and wrote sacred choral music of comparable elaboration. On Monday evening Harry Christophers conducted The Sixteen in a wonderful motet, Gaude virgo mater Christi, and the exceedingly strenuous Mass "Te Deum", whose long, sinuous lines stretched like the branches of a great tree, quite stunning in its varied orchestration of five voices, and exhausting just to listen to. The Sixteen's sopranos must have been gasping by the end.

ADRIAN JACK

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