Man cannot live by the three Bs alone

Radio 3 round-up
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The Independent Culture
Through all the changes that have been made to Radio 3, not just recently but over many years, This Week's Composer - or Composer of the Week, as it's now called - has remained a staple part of my listening diet. And most people I know try to catch at least some of it, too. When other series stop for the summer, this one carries on, and it's as well that something so focused and informative does.

In the last few years, the programme has often been, shall we say, a bit fancier than in the old days when the Gramophone Department simply combed the catalogues. Producers have even taken themselves off to dangerous places like Paris, the scene of several composers' crimes, and forced foreigners to bear witness. Fruity-voiced thespians have, in reading composers' recorded words, invented for them caricatured personalities of unutterable pomp.

This week, the Independent's very own Stephen Johnson has been restrained and has denied himself (or been denied?) a sunny trip to Romania, where George Enescu was born in a town that now bears his name. Nor has he even hopped over to Paris, where, as Georges Enesco, the fluent though not prolific composer, brilliant violinist, good pianist, conductor and revered teacher spent a large part of his life.

Enescu was very, very clever. When conducting an opera by Wagner, he sang the part of a defaulting singer from the rostrum. If all Beethoven's music were to be destroyed, Enescu modestly claimed, he would only be able to write out in full the symphonies, string quartets, Missa Solemnis and Fidelio.

Like that other brilliant and influential figure, Ferruccio Busoni, Enescu seems, now, to inhabit limbo. There's no solid identity in his music. And though his first Romanian Rhapsody, duly included in Monday's programme, is a popular concert piece, Enescu the composer has not caught on. When Johnson asked Enescu's biographer, Noel Malcolm, why this was, he suggested that the Romanians, though revering Enescu, had not the wherewithal to promote his music outside their own country, unlike the Czechs with their Supraphon recordings of Janacek. Partly, too, he put his neglect down to pure chance. Well, he would hardly say Enescu's music lacked a strong personality, would he?

Anyway, the fine romantic flailings of Enescu's Third Symphony, complete with final chorus, certainly made pleasant listening on Tuesday. One cannot listen to the three Bs, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert alone.

But there are rumbles that we may have to. COTW's exploratory programmes are too expensive, attracting too few listeners, so it will be back to the continuity studio, with producers or staff presenters offering plain guides to proven favourites, of the sort Mark Rowlinson did with Schubert last week. Nothing wrong with that, but while Composer of the Week has kept some pretty undistinguished company in the recent past, it will be a great pity if it does nothing to challenge what is understood as "standard repertoire".

What makes people switch on, off or over is a total mystery. Since my little Roberts portable lost an argument with a feather duster, it's jammed permanently on Radio 3, so I'm not spoilt for choice. The only snag is how, in life's long journey, to fill those stretches of no man's land like Saturday afternoons. When Stephen Walsh did his series with Robert Craft a few weeks ago, it was no problem. This was as close to mandatory listening as you can get, with a very well-informed specialist talking informally to an extremely remarkable man - no less, in some people's minds, than Stravinsky's latter-day Svengali. No matter that Craft's ums and ers grew awfully irritating, he came across as relaxed and modest, also honest, and never boring.

Which cannot be said of Itzhak Perlman in the next series, interviewed to his just perceptible discomfort by a slightly too smooth and articulate Bernard Keeffe. Perlman can certainly play the violin, but an original idea never seems to have entered his head.

Bringing us up to the present, a four-part series of two-hour programmes surveying the career of Janet Baker began last Saturday with the Dame herself interviewed by Brian Kay. Which may sound all set for a cosy tea- time. In fact, Dame Janet was a breath of fresh air and totally without side. She took all Kay's questions seriously and, in answering them, she was impervious to his polite promptings, insisting on her own words.

She cut through all the usual conspiracy of congratulation among musicians by saying plainly how uncomfortable she felt when, already launched as a professional singer, she took part in Lotte Lehmann's master-classes. Lehmann's motives were "impure", she thought, because she used singers to project her own personality.

By sheer coincidence, the last programme in the series The Finishing Touch came later the same afternoon. Anthony Zerpa-Falcon, a fourth-year student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, was given a consultation lesson, you might call it, by the vastly experienced British pianist Malcolm Binns.

The piece chosen was Liszt's first Mephisto Waltz, which requires immense technical skill - of the sort you'd take for granted in the situation - but doesn't provoke very searching questions of interpretation. Slow down here a bit, don't make such a meal of that, were about the extent of Binns's insights. What was really lacking in Zerpa-Falcon's playing was the kind of relaxed sense of pacing, the authoritative over-view, which were never going to be given a chance to show themselves in these circumstances anyway.

In certain passages he showed a ravishingly transparent articulation that Binns might have given him more credit for - he just said "Good". I would have liked the young man to argue back a bit, or to have been encouraged to do so. I would also have liked Binns to demonstrate, instead of vaguely singing. At the end, he got Zerpa-Falcon to play the whole piece from start to finish in the light of what he said. But the fact is that, at this advanced level, you cannot change a pianist's way of playing like a hairstyle.

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