Classical: Music on TV

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The Independent Culture
Apart from occasional operatic productions and a few live telecasts from the season's less challenging promenade concerts, television treatment of classical music in recent years has virtually ceased to be a serious presence. A couple of programmes last week only confirmed this impression, although one, The Wanderer (in BBC1's Omnibus series), looked as if it was going to be a cut above the norm. Here, that most impressive pianist Andras Schiff fronted a programme on the music of Schubert, a composer he has proved to be magically in sympathy with.

There were gorgeous shots of Schubert's piano, his birthplace, workroom and haunts, to set the scene. But the programme quickly lost focus, and Schiff talked discursively about his personal response to the music, illustrating from the piano and lieder repertories. He was amiable and true-hearted, but a new view of the prodigiously inventive Schubert needs more than one 50-minute programme and, given the available time, the makers of The Wanderer should have given it a tighter shape and concentrated on one or two big new ideas about the composer.

There were, of course, touching perceptions, but at least one was marred by the manner of its expression. Der Doppelganger does not encompass a greater drama than the whole of Gotterdammerung. It might have been more helpful to suggest that this miraculous song hints at a vast canvas within its short span.

The week's other music programme, in Channel 4's four-part series Naked Classics, promised less and turned out to be only too typical of the fan- magazine treatment that is usually meted out to prominent figures in the music profession. Zubin Mehta is something of a phenomenon among conductors, rising to prominence in his twenties and remaining a favourite with a number of world-famous orchestras (not to mention the Three Tenors), despite an often none too favourable critical response to his work in the musical press.

A serious examination of his gifts and possible shortcomings would have been fascinating, given the current obsession with conductors and their earnings. As it was, contributions from the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman did not really raise the level of musical thinking in the film, and we were given the customary sound and vision bites showing him at rehearsal, without making any musical points; dealing with the stress of being a travelling virtuoso, without drawing any musical conclusions; being lionised by fans.

The big personality came across, the mutual affection that exists between him and the orchestras he does most of his work with, but what about his musical character and thinking?

One would have liked to hear the charges of triviality and slickness either substantiated or refuted, and to have heard more than a few seconds of music at a time. It would have been exciting to have been drawn behind the glamorous facade of this star and been shown the real musiciann Anthony Payne