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

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders