Life after Henry Revise and survive

Radio 3 round-up

The zenith is past. Henry Purcell has been re-laid - not to say relayed - to tercentennial rest in Westminster Abbey. And Radio 3's year- long celebration of the indigenous muse, Fairest Isle itself, has but a little month to run. No doubt the BBC has received the predictable complaints from composers, performers and musical pressure groups who think they ought to have been included. No doubt the odd buff is still hankering after a really comprehensive investigation into the decline and fall of the British comedy overture. But the ingenious and genuinely exploratory ways in which so many of the programme-makers have seized upon the Fairest Isle pretext must have reassured many listeners who fear the future of serious music broadcasting in this country is set on an inexorable slide towards rushed schedules and sound-bite presentation.

Among recent series, for instance, Adrian Jack's Sunday evening explorations of five great English cathedrals not only indulged the ear in some of the more purple passages of Anglican Church music, but reminded one of the pleasures of sheer leisureliness as a broadcasting value. By the end of each hour-and-a-half, one felt positively steeped in the history, sights and sounds of the cathedral concerned.

As for the year's more arcane revivals, even that fabled genre of the far-off 1950s, the so-called Cheltenham Symphony, has been briefly resuscitated into a late-night series - though one might wonder whether midnight was the likeliest time to win new friends for Humphrey Searle and Peter Racine Fricker. Among features still to come are a nostalgic look at British film music on 10 December; and, on 20 December, an entire evening drawing together the achievements of Gustav Holst - whose opera, The Perfect Fool, receives a rare broadcast on Christmas Day itself.

Come 1 January, however, Radio 3 is going to have to adjust to life without Fairest Isle or any other obvious big theme to help fill its ever-gaping maw. True, 1996 includes the Bruckner centenary, but one imagines any comprehensive celebration of the Germanic 19th century (Fairest Reich?) is likely to be postponed to the Brahms-Schubert junketings of 1997.

There are also a number of structural changes in programming that have been quietly insinuated in recent months to take account of. The moving forward of Composer of the Week is evidently part of a larger pattern. Weekdays and weekends alike, most of the more focused series and features - the archival and discussion programmes, the slots for early music, ethnic recordings and jazz - now seem to be crammed into the afternoons. Not necessarily objectionable in itself: indeed many listeners might welcome a completion of the process with the removal of In Tune to the middle of the night - which is about all its garrulous inconsequence is fit for - leaving a straight run through to the concert and opera relays that inevitably dominate the evening schedules.

But the quid pro quo is what has happened to the mornings. For the arrival of Morning Collection with Paul Gambaccini means that the first six hours of each weekday (not to mention the first five on Sundays) now comprise little more than loose miscellanies of recorded music, linked by little information, less discussion and nothing at all in the way of features.

True, Musical Encounters runs an "Artist of the Week" through its schedules; granted, Penny Gore has been blasting On Air listeners from sleep all this week with instalments of Smetana's Ma Vlast. And the sequences of Haydn sonatas, Holst orchestral pieces and Dvorak symphonies that Gambaccini has been running through Morning Collection have proved one of its more encouraging features, whatever the fuss over his mode of presentation. But the real discussion ought to be whether Radio 3 listeners feel entirely happy to find the first third of each day's broadcasting (with the partial exception of Saturdays) virtually declared a thought-free zone.

BAYAN NORTHCOTT

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