Classical: Music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
When Masters of Orchestral Colour are under discussion, you can bet that Berlioz will be cited, along with Beethoven, the 19th-century Russians and a host of turn-of-the-century composers, headed by Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Mahler and Elgar. The same is true of academy textbooks on the subject. What of the 18th century? Mozart rarely enters the proceedings, although he is one of the greatest of all masters of orchestral texturing, possibly because his music is so perfect that we are unwilling to separate the orchestral sound from the total art-work. Bach, too, is disregarded, since the heart of his vision seems to be in his music's contrapuntal dialectic. Isn't it possible, after all, to transcribe Bach's work, the argument goes, without losing any of its essential content, so how can textural colour be counted among its most important elements?

In BBC Radio 3's Spirit of the Age last Sunday, however, George Pratt set out to disabuse us of this notion. In one sense the programme ran according to a tried and tested formula by bringing us excerpts from Bach's cantatas with linking material. It could have been like a hundred other programmes which merely find excuses for playing well-loved excerpts, but Pratt wore his learning lightly and ended by reminding us forcibly of Bach's orchestral and instrumental mastery, and relating that skill to spiritual content in a collection of stunningly inventive masterpieces.

How ravishing the sopranino recorder that danced above the texture in Cantata No 96 to suggest the morning star's sparkling radiance and, by inference, its wider symbolism. And with what astonishing art does Bach suggest the trembling soul stepping out to seek its saviour in Cantata No 33. Muted first violins over pizzicato lower strings and intermittently staccato organ continuo achieve the miracle by textural means, while working through one of the composer's typically exhaustive thematic arguments.

This was a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening sequence, including more than one thought-provoking perception: when Bach re-used material he was always "sanctifying the secular, never deconsecrating the sacred".

The previous afternoon we had been educated in a more earnest style by The Finishing Touch, in which five students were coached through Brahms's Piano Quintet. Maybe the proceedings lacked the charisma of those masterclasses where the witty and famous entertain us at the expense of their students, but the serious music-lover will have learnt much of value. The search for perfection of utterance can be a vanity, said one teacher: risk making mistakes for the sake of the music.

Finally, in what for many people must have been the surprise of the year, Music Matters revealed the extent to which one of the most eminent avant- gardists of our time had worked in the popular marketplace. Lutoslawski's workers' music is known of, if rarely heard, but what about his foxtrots, waltzes and blues? Terrific pieces, to judge by what we heard here.

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