CLASSICAL: Music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
It seemed so promising, in an old-fashioned BBC sort of way: Krzysztof Penderecki's choral celebration of Jerusalem's first 3,000 years would be framed by a guided tour of the city's ramparts. The music would draw on the joys and woes of the composer's Polish-Jewish past, while the words embraced all Jewry. Had Sunday's Choir Works (Radio 3) hit on a perfect marriage of sound and sense?

Not quite. Uneasily aware that there are two ways of approaching everything among these old stones, presenter Jeremy Summerly stubbed his toe at every turn. "We've just heard 'Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem'," he observed to his Israeli guide, as they stood at the gates of the City of David. "Obviously there's a certain irony here..." The guide parroted some quick historical stuff about Suleiman the Magnificent, but skipped nimbly over ironies of a more pressing nature. The keynote was post-Holocaust triumphalism: the nagging undertone was that these walls could yet run with rivers of blood.

Even without this disjunction, the programme was flawed. Penderecki's Psalm settings - with intermittent echoes of Verdi, Mahler and Russian Orthodox chant - were splendidly sung, and evoked an ecstatic, trance- like response: this was no state of mind in which to entertain political- historical debate. The focus, in other words, was impossibly split.

This question of focus had been raised more interestingly - and more successfully - the previous evening by Adrian Jack's extraordinary sound- collage From the Diary of a Fly (Radio 3). We got readings from Aristotle, Montaigne, La Fontaine, John Clare, plus sundry modern novelists and academic treatises; and music by a swarm of composers, including the prolific Jack himself. A rumination on the glorious strangeness of insect life: a dizzying tapestry of words and notes.

I would have liked a clearer, firmer structure - if there was one, it was too deep for me - and I was frustrated by the way the words were sometimes drowned by the music, but the overall effect was bewitching. Dusty, creaky, percussive sounds were intercut with spidery wanderings on the piano; Aeolian harps and rainsticks alternated with Chopin and Schumann; Kafka's Gregor Samsa woke as a beetle to the accompaniment of tumultuous Scriabin, which metamorphosed into a tumult of bells. The focus was constantly shifting between word and sound - sometimes, in parallel dialogues, between word and word - but the force was never dissipated.

This was a Radio 3 commission: the BBC's strike-rate may have gone down for new scores by intransigent avant-gardists, but it's still quite healthy for true experiment. And, as the archives grow, so they are progressively mined: Roy Plomley's 1984 interview with Miklos Rozsa was Exhibit A in a fascinating Composer of the Week profile of this cinematic Titan. Since this indispensable series now goes out at listener-hostile times - midday, with repeats at midnight - I caught the programmes with difficulty, but they were worth it.

The anecdotes were lovely - Rozsa landed his first film commission after playing "a city in uproar" on the piano for a dubious mogul - and rarities were unearthed along the way, notably some exquisitely Bartokian chamber music which he composed off-duty from MGM. This week's topic - Forgotten Giants of 18th-Century Opera - has been making more sense than its incongruous title suggests.

A short review can't begin to do justice to the musical riches put out this week, as every other week. Other highlights have included a trip through the dark landscape of Brahms's middle-period songs (Mining the Archive, Radio 3); a new attempt to solve a perennial mystery in Charlie Chaplin - Composer (Radio 2); and an atmospheric evening with habanera- singing sailors on the Costa Brava (Songs from a Country Called Spain, Radio 3). John Drummond's birthday portrait of Mstislav Rostropovich (Slava, Slava! Radio 3) was relentlessly gushing, but perhaps this indefatigable Russian bear really has no faultsn Michael Church