Classical: The gift to be simple Revise and survive

Radio 3 round-up

The broadcast last week of a 1937 BBC radio anthology for which Britten had been asked to write incidental music proved exceptionally revealing. The Company of Heaven showed not only the composer's astonishingly quick grasp of what was required for a new medium, but also the BBC's acumen in spotting the 23-year-old's potential.

The Company of Heaven is a celebration of Michelmas. It was felt that Ellis Robert's choice of words would unify its narrative thread, supported by the music. But the power of Britten's contribution seemed to alter the focus. Britten confessed that he did not understand the programme's dialectic, but enjoyed setting the lovely words. Intuitive comprehension shines through his astonishing score, nevertheless. The speaking chorus of "War in Heaven" is effective beyond its simple means, as are the moments of spare orchestral support and the magical funeral march for the child run down by a horse and cart but snatched up by an angel.

The most extended music, a splendid arrangement of "All Creatures of Our God and King", brought the anthology to a touching conclusion. Ultimately, one felt that music had co-existed with words and not subsumed them - something which perhaps only the focus obtained by microphone placing can make possible.

Britten featured again in Composing for Children on Saturday afternoon. Wearing its learning very lightly, it presented a sequence of charming pieces especially composed for young performers, interspersed with comment from the players themselves. Composers young and old would have been well advised to listen. In one short interview, Judith Bingham alluded to the fact that writing difficult music is not really a problem, but simplifying without losing the essence of an idea requires the greatest skill, and that is precisely what is needed when writing for the young.

The tricky path that has to be negotiated between writing down to children and writing over their heads has defeated many. Members of the New London Children's Choir were scornful of the childish nursery music they are sometimes faced with, while their excellent performances of pieces by Matthias and Nina Humphries, the outstanding runner-up in a BBC competition for young composers' children's music, proved just how demanding such music can be.

The broadcast ended with Judith Weir's Ride on Lake Constance. Its tricky metres surprised and tested some of the members of the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, but the dramatic narrative and unpretentious vigour quickly channelled their full energies. Again, as Bingham suggested, it's no use adults drawing on their nostalgia for childhood when composing for the young. Something more realistic and tough-edged is called for, which is just what Weir supplied.

Earlier that day, many musical communicators must have listened with envy to the eloquent perceptions of actor and satirist John Bird, Michael Berkeley's guest on Private Passions. So often, such celebrity choice programmes reveal no more than sentimental trivialities about the subject's private and public life. Three cheers, then, for Bird's staunch upholding of all things new, serious and uncompromising in music, and for his impressive musical insights, verbalised with a brilliance of which many a professional commentator would have been proud.

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