A Spaniard in his works

music on radio

Imagine being asked to devise a series for that venerable Radio 3 institution Composer of the Week: five hour-long programmes in which to make the best case for a favourite uvre. No problem if one happened to plump for Perotin or Ruggles, for Webern or Duparc, since each of their entire outputs could easily be fitted into the available time. But supposing one wanted to do one's bit for such massive producers and mainstays of the repertoire as Handel, Mozart, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky? The difficulty would not just be what to select, but how to present it freshly. Last week's treatment of Brahms through what is known of his intimate relationships, under such daily titles as "Absent Friends" and "Brahms's Other Women", could have been considered trite had it not enabled the presenter Philip Brady to focus upon some of Brahms's most touching and neglected lieder. Yet next week's exploration of JS Bach's instrumental music through historic recordings, selected by the Radio 3 early music producer Kate Bolton, promises a fascinating survey of changing performance styles as the programmes progress from Brahms's old friend Joseph Joachim bowing forcefully through a solo violin Adagio in the 1900s to Glenn Gould's celebrated Goldberg Variations from the 1950s.

And, of course, there is always the possibility of cross-connecting a series with other salient broadcasts. For instance, the current morning Composers of the Week: Falla, Gerhard and the Spanish Heritage was evidently planned with half an ear for Wednesday's Prom, featuring Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain and suites from The Three-Cornered Hat, and Roberto Gerhard's Cancionero de Pedrell - programmed, in turn, to mark the 50th anniversary of Falla's death this year and the centenary of Gerhard's birth this month. In the interval, Michael Oliver conducted a tantalising inquiry into the achievement of the late 19th-century scholar-composer Felipe Pedrell himself, who, in collecting and editing vast quantities of Iberian folksong and early music, not to say teaching Albeniz, Granados, Falla and Gerhard, seems to have fathered the entire 20th-century renaissance of Spanish music. Such, indeed, was his posthumous influence that, just before seeking exile from Franco's Spain in the late 1930s, Falla and Gerhard quite independently embarked upon orchestral fantasies on Pedrell's tunes - Falla's proving self-effacingly nostalgic, Gerhard's (finished in Cambridge, where he spent his last three decades) turning tragic. By juxtaposing the two works in Monday morning's initial Composers of the Week, the series' lucid presenter Calum MacDonald was already able to touch in a vast amount of Spanish background.

His subsequent programmes have been equally focused. On Tuesday the subject was the Andalusian style, which Falla modestly claimed it took Debussy to synthesise for Spanish composers and which subsequently brought Falla himself his greatest successes. The real point, though, was how both he and Gerhard ultimately evolved beyond the style: cue for a striking 1958 recording of Gerhard's setting of Lorca's Lament on the Death of a Bullfighter, with Stephen Murray orating to a taped evocation of cracked bells and sinister soughings in the olive trees. Wednesday's focus was Cervantes, with Falla's translucent one-acter Master Peter's Puppet Show offset by Gerhard's marvellously inventive Dances from Don Quixote - an epitome of that rich middle period in which he somehow managed to combine his Pedrellian heritage with techniques of his other teacher, Schoenberg. In Gerhard's later work the advanced elements were to predominate. Yet even amid the avant-garde frissons of his Fourth Symphony from 1967 one can still, touchingly, catch the echo of a Falla-esque fanfare here, a Pedrellian oboe duo there - as can be heard in today's programme at noon or late night all next week when the series is repeated.

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