Bounce and novelty

Music on radio

Radio's great strength as a broadcasting medium is that it encourages listeners to use their imaginations. By comparison, even the finest TV programmes can be seen to be spoonfeeding their audiences. It was a wise little boy who, when asked which medium he preferred, said he liked radio because the pictures were better. Even so, Radio 3 seemed to be asking rather a lot of its listeners by programming Stravinsky's Apollo on Tuesday evening as a Ballet for Radio, "An invisible production with commentary".

In the event, it did not quite live up to that promise as the music formed a mere background to descriptions by dancers and commentators of Balanchine's famous choreography. Still, it stretched one's attention and recovered something of the essence of "Mr B's" vision. I cherished his "Simplicity is a complicated thing. You have to know an awful lot to know what is not necessary."

This time last year a short series of programmes did a fine job in refocusing our attention on the so-called light music of Eric Coates, Haydn Wood and their like. It was a genre which often produced music of more than ephemeral appeal, and at its finest could move as well as entertain. Record sales indicate that such music might be returning to favour and the time is certainly ripe for further reassessments. Billy Mayerl, the pianist whose phenomenal virtuosity in syncopated novelty numbers brought him fame in the Thirties and Forties, wrote music of this kind in addition to his jazzier pieces, and Peter Dickinson reviewed his achievements in Radio 3's profile on Saturday's A Formula for Success.

Mayerl's captivating novelty items like Railroad Rhythms still carry an electric charge, especially when heard in the composer's own brilliant recorded performances. Some of the straighter pieces like Caprinella for violin and piano, which belong to the world of Bridge and Ireland, also charmed us, but Mayerl sometimes meandered a little in this idiom, and it is certainly the bouncy novelty items that stand the best chance of living on.

It is bounce and novelty of a rather different sort which have been responsible for one of the most astonishing developments in popular classic taste this century - the phenomenal ascent to stardom of Vivaldi, a composer who was known only to specialists 50 years ago yet is now one of the most recorded of all. This development, along with the changing attitudes of interpreters from the unashamed romantics of the Thirties to later authenticists and today's somewhat more liberal school, were fascinatingly examined by Harry Haskell on Sunday's Interpretations on Record.

There were odd revelations like the importance for the Italian fascists of rediscovering Vivaldi as a cultural icon, while the energy and virtuosity of the music seemed indestructible even at the hands of Cortot's appalling piano transcriptions. But despite its life force and its splendid use of instrumental virtuosity as a musical and not merely a display element, Vivaldi's music still seems one-dimensional in comparison with such as Bach and Handel. It is perhaps a mark of our time that it currently seems to be outstripping both those composers in the popularity charts.


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