Music on Radio 3

A handful of programmes on BBC Radio 3 seems regularly to supply the week's most interesting talking-points and listening experiences, and once again Mining the Archive, informatively presented by Peter Paul Nash last Friday, provoked thought. Boulez's early conducting career was placed under the microscope, and his extraordinary interpretation of Debussy's La Mer, in a Prom performance with the National Youth Orchestra, provided something of a revelation that fascinatingly chimed in with a topic raised the following day in Other Times, Other Places - The Changing Sounds of the World's Great Orchestras.

Boulez's approach to La Mer was brisk, to say the least, and objective, and for a while you might have felt he was missing some of the score's humanity and sensuous expressiveness. Then the penny dropped with his intensity and speed in the finale: a terrifying natural force was being released, and Boulez's care for clarity of process and detail, astoundingly maintained at breakneck pace, justified itself.

Under some conductors, such a manic tempo and such an unrelenting call upon the young players' virtuosity would have sounded attention-seeking, but with Boulez the gale truly lashed and we could experience the eye of the storm. What he might have called the sentimental element had been banished to reveal the purely elemental.

The relationship between expressive structure and brisk tempo was again the object of our astonished admiration the next morning when Jonathan Swain's exploration of changing orchestral styles lit upon Elgar's 1926 recording of Cockaigne. This splendid interpretation runs two minutes shorter than its average modern counterpart, yet never sounds rushed. Indeed, a spacious grandeur is generated and the vigorous tempo adopted by its composer focuses the piece's rich emotional life, where slower, more overtly expressive approaches can sound self-indulgent.

For those who fear the displacement of serious music talks by personality profiles and other forms of journalism, Saturday's programme must have been reassuring, and Swain's broad survey - which ranged from the use of portamento to the linking of playing and recording techniques - was an absorbing one. Modern recording techniques increasingly compel orchestras to produce a note-perfect commodity rather than a vital interpretation. In the past, orchestras took their concert interpretations into the studios; now, they try to reproduce their recordings in the concert halls. There is something wrong somewhere.

A further source of anxiety - the presentation style of Radio 3's output - was obliquely focused in last week's repeat of the documentary The Envy of the World (8 Aug), which charted the evolution of the Third Programme and Radio 3. Many of those who are turned off by the new chirpy style adopted by some music presenters today would have warmed to the instructions given to announcers in the old days. Personalised chatting to listeners was firmly discouraged, as Richard Baker recalled, remembering an edict from above: "Who cares what you think?"

A conversational style eked out with personal opinion can only be acceptable if backed up by a moral weight and depth of knowledge that listeners can respect. Nicholas Kenyon has admitted that, in the most recent attempts to find that elusive manner, informative yet accessible, the ideal has still not been discovered.

Anthony Payne

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