Mr Nice and Mr Nasty

Radio round-up; Adrian Jack samples Classic FM's souped-up Masterclass
Click to follow
If you find Paul Gambaccini formulaic and weirdly mannered on Radio 3, try Mel Cooper on Classic FM. "The one and only," Margaret Howard called him in her back announcement after Crosse & Blackwell's Masterclass on Sunday afternoon (good, clean, homely Margaret Howard, who once seemed Radio 4's ideal voice). From which you gather Mel Cooper is a personality. His voice certainly goes up and down a lot.

What with advertising breaks, trails and all, the variety of voices - not to mention different bits of music - within one hour was bewildering. You had to be smart to tell when the actual programme began, broke off and was resumed, though they had one neat idea as a signal, which was to replay the closing passage of a featured work (Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet) before exit. Just to test whether you really had been listening.

Mel Cooper's dizzy pace and perky tones, close to the microphone in a small studio, were contrasted with the ever-so-English Hilary Davon Wetton, who sounded like a Tory MP in a pin-stripe suit, and was recorded in a resonant church-like acoustic. Between Cooper's accounts of the general drift of musical history, from Beethoven to Sibelius, over a background of relevant music - a bombardment of generalisations about bigger, louder orchestras, mechanical changes to instruments, romanticism, love of nature, feeling, Lieder, the ultimate power-freak, Wagner, then suddenly into the 20th century with its complications and (though cautiously suggested) not very nice sounds - between those breathless summaries, Davon Wetton explained examples of music in detail and conducted them. It was a bit like the nice and the nasty interrogator.

Production values were rather low, with crude cuts between the commercial recordings used as background to Cooper's whirlwind time-travelling and Davon Wetton's weary studio orchestra, which gave scrappy, clumsy performances of Fingal's Cave, Romeo and Juliet and the final movement of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. It's odd how a bad - even an amateur - performance seems to lay the compositional mechanics of a piece bare by laying waste its expressive beauty, although that probably wasn't the intention. Still, if Classic FM scored low on actual production, it rates high on promotion and public relations, for you can get the entire programme and its two predecessors on cassette.

The outstanding event on Radio 3 last week was the UK premiere of Ligeti's Sonata for solo viola, recorded at the South Bank just over a year ago. What Bach did for violin and cello, Ligeti has done for their neglected but far-from-ugly sister, though Ligeti himself disclaims any comparison. In Ligeti's characteristic way, the six movements came together - some originating as occasional pieces - over a period of four years. In total they last roughly 21 minutes, and a lot of the music draws on Ligeti's early memories of folk music from Transylvania - the slow fifth movement, for example, which is a "Lament" in two simultaneous melodic parts, sometimes in spectral harmonics. The sixth movement is a sort of archaic dance - Ligeti says it's a Chaconne, in the original sense of a wild, exuberant dance, though Tabea Zimmermann's performance was more sprightly than wild. But what playing! It would take a connoisseur of wine to list the appropriate epithets. You might not recognise the Sonata as echt-Ligeti - there is not much that is zany or teases the ear - but at 72 Ligeti seems to be flourishing fairer than ever, able now to look back as well as forwards.

Comments