music on radio 3: Who knows what the caged bird sings?

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The Independent Culture
According to David Attenborough, blackbirds have regional accents - a blackbird's song sounds different in Yorkshire from one in Sussex. This useful bit of information emerged in last week's Voices, when Attenborough told the regular presenter, Iain Burnside, what kind of songs he took for company on his travels. And animals also sing - at least, male and female gibbons in the forests of Borneo sing in such sweet accord that you can't tell there are two doing it unless you watch them.

I knew Attenborough was a connoisseur of the visual arts, but he turned out to be focused and well-informed on music as well. It really matters to him, to the extent that he makes his own little plastic bags for CDs to pack away, as many as possible, and play over headphones in his tent at night. His choices were not obscure, but each illustrated a point.

Perhaps, though, there should be a series called Accompaniments - a term that has been treated with caution on Radio 3. None of Attenborough's chosen voices would have been the same without the instrumental contribution, and two examples in particular were striking, for different reasons: one, Joan Baez's relatively simple but spellbinding self-accompaniment on guitar, picking up the harmonies on the breeze, like an Aeolian harp; the other, the piano part that Britten added to the folksong "O waly, waly", following its own perverse logic to counteract the richness of the melody.

The inflections that show a singer thinks the words while singing them may to some extent conflict with sheer musical beauty. And this thought occurred when listening to a BBC recording of Michelangeli playing Beethoven's Op 111 Piano Sonata in Mining the Archive on Friday afternoon. I had to keep reminding myself that this mechanically perfect but spiritually empty playing came from the man described later in the programme as one of the great pianists of all time. A BBC archive tape of Annie Fischer playing the same sonata has recently been released on CD and shows the converse - technical fallibility, though only to the extent of being human, and spiritual grace, in the sense of coming from the divine.

Yet Michelangeli's performance of Schumann's Carnaval was truly an achievement to wonder at, because every technical problem in the work was so triumphantly solved. It was hard to resist the image of the maestro handling his Ferrari in the way he negotiated Schumann's perilous leaps in the "Preamble', which usually sound like an unholy scramble. But then, dazzlingly original, imaginative and gorgeous as this music is, it's about excitement of the senses rather than stirrings of the soul. Yet again, if that puts Michelangeli on a lower plane than Fischer, his playing of a frail little piece, absurdly called "Erotik" - the fifth of Grieg's Lyric Pieces, Op 43 - had, in each single note, such intense eloquence, the music was completely transformed, becoming something like a prayer.

There were transformations, too, in a belated relay of a recital Mikhail Pletnev gave at the Wigmore Hall last October. Though Parfums de l'Orient was the title of the programme before it, devoted to the soft-porn operas of Massenet, there were far more potent, and certainly more varied, scents in Pletnev's playing of sonatas by Scarlatti and Debussy's complete first book of Preludes. The last of Pletnev's choice of Scarlatti sonatas was really too scented to evoke the rowdy orchestral sounds of a Spanish fair that Ralph Kirkpatrick heard in the piece. It didn't matter, and it's inevitable that the imagery of music will widen as time goes by, particularly when it's not played on period instruments.

Similarly, Debussy's "Minstrels" had wandered far from the music hall, and become sophisticated. But it was enthralling to listen throughout the 12 Preludes, just to hear what new colours, unexpected re-balancing of textures, Pletnev came up with. The bare, rising chordal columns of "La Cathedrale engloutie" have never sounded quite the same from anyone else.

Music Matters at the weekend searched for music's meaning, but while the presenter Ivan Hewett kept re-wording what Paul Driver had already made clear, he merely said "I see" to the gobbledegook of Derek Alsop. I didn't see at all, though I suppose that parallels Peter Paul Nash's contention that music's sense depends on the listener's private reservoir of meanings. At 45 minutes short, the programme could only give the subject a lick and a promise. Towards the end, Anthony Frier reminded the other participants that music provided people with an occasion to come together and share an experience. In the West, we talk of music mainly in aesthetic terms, but elsewhere it can be a religious or some kind of community experience. Our obsession with language in explaining music, Frier suggested, leads us to talk too much about communication, when we ought to be talking of communion. For that is what goes on in music, and why it seems so rich to us.