Record Review is the Saturday morning programme that expects you to keep a few miles of shelving free for its recommendations. To be fair, John Steane last weekend tried to tempt us to get just two of the available 12 complete recordings of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Steane speaks in a plummy counter-tenor all his own, though it reminds me uncannily of Angus Wilson.He's one of the very few speakers who give phrases like "you might say" new energy. "If you heard a sort of munching sound from the studio a moment ago," he said, "it must have been the eating of words" - for when he considered Tristan on Record Review in 1978, he had described Karajan's version as one "to live with". He had since found otherwise.
It's good to hear a critic change his mind; after all, it's inevitable that he should, as opportunities for comparison multiply. If he had to plump for just one version this time, Steane decided it had to be Furtwangler's 1952 version, despite what he called "the rather deadly weight of that tag 'classic' which for so long has hung round its neck". Describing Flagstad's voice (in a live recording of 16 years before) as "lit with the happiness of love", his own was charged with unselfconscious enthusiasm. Inevitably, in a slot of just 45 minutes, he had to focus most on Isolde's part, but the way in which he revealed what is required of her was a perfect example of how to treat the listeners as people who could discriminate, once they had the knowledge.
Comparisons among styles of singing were also the subject of Spirit of the Age on Sunday, when Christopher Page discussed the history of the choir of Westminster Cathedral with Timothy Day, who brought out historic recordings from the National Sound Archive, and James O'Donnell, the present director of the choristers, who conducted them on the spot. A performance of the "Gloria" from Palestrina's Missa Aeterna Christi munera, recorded by men only in 1909, was brisk and choppy. O'Donnell said he would go for a more horizontal interpretation, with more line, and duly demonstrated.
But nothing could compare with the passionately expressive recording George Malcolm made with the choir in 1959 of Victoria's Responsories for Tenebrae. Somehow, Malcolm got the boys really to attack the music as if their lives depended on it. Apparently, the unique, wiry sound Malcolm developed in the 12 years he was music director arose not from any learned musicological theory but from a personal reaction against the English cathedral hoot prevalent at the time. Yet a recording of a piece by Weelkes, made by the choir of King's College, Cambridge, in 1965, showed that boys could hoot with vigour, too.
For the first time, Spirit of the Age went live, with a studio audience. It was no doubt good for the choir and gave its performances a sense of occasion. Yet what seems like the growing vogue for broadcasts of this type is a mixed blessing, for contributors tend to sound edgy and self- conscious. Page is normally a very warm, relaxed performer at the microphone, but here he was forced to project, as it were, over the heads of his radio listeners. I would rather he spoke just to me.