Music on Radio

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Is the business of programme packaging on Radio 3 getting a little out of hand? True we have had annual installments of Towards the Millennium since the beginning of the decade and, from now until its end, these will be complemented by recurrent bouts of Sounding the Century. Sometimes, as in last Wednesday's relay of Britten's War Requiem, the two series will inevitably criss-cross. But if Sounding the Century is intended, in the words of George Benjamin - co-opted by Nicholas Kenyon as Artistic Consultant - to "celebrate the abundant vitality of 20th-century music by including both the most familiar classics and lesser-known works which speak strongly to our time", then it is not so clear why, for instance, the recent Composer of the Week series exploring the exotic output of the little known Charles Koechlin qualified for a Sounding the Century ticket, whereas this week's evening Composer of the Week, Webern, did not.

Just to complicate matters, we also have Singing the Century and a whole sequence of sub-series: Stravinsky: Rites of Spring; Debussy: Painter of Dreams; Clocks and Clouds: Music of Gyorgi Ligeti... doubtless soon to be followed by Schoenberg: Painter of Nightmares and so on and on through the outputs of Ravel, Bartok, Varese, Berg, Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen... Will listeners start riposting, "To Hell with all this significance: the profoundest master of 20th-century music is Poulenc, and that's that!" Might it not be easier if Radio 3's planners round up all its 20th-century output until the Millennium under some single, simple title such as Trumps of Doom and have done?

No, but seriously: how ever well intentioned such an orgy of certification and signposting may be, it could come over as condescending to a Radio 3 public, much of which has long since accepted, say, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring as standard repertoire, and does not need to be reminded yet again about its riotous premiere, and may even be inclined to question why yet another festival of 20th-century music should automatically open with it - automatically conducted by Pierre Boulez.

His approach to the work has hardly changed significantly over the past three or four decades; still less have his highly selective views on the evolution of 20th-century music as a whole - which, indeed, have long since gained the pervasiveness of an orthodoxy among such cultural powers as successive Controllers of Radio 3, Chief Executives of the South Bank Board, and so forth. The real issues for Sounding the Century ought to be whether now is the time to sell that orthodoxy even harder, or rather, to question it. For, as Howard Skempton's choice of 1960s "experimentalist" composers in tonight's Towards the Millennium edition of Hear and Now seems likely to remind us, the "official" view of modern music has rarely failed to provoke resistance - if of rather variable compositional substances.

Actually, given the automatic Boulez thumbs-down to anything from Stravinsky's middle period of so-called neo-classicism, it was rather brave of George Benjamin to precede the London premiere he conducted of Boulez's ...explosante fixe... on 21 February with Stravinsky items of just that provenance - if disappointing that Boulez failed to rise to the challenge in their broadcast interval discussion. Probably the mastery of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and the best of the rest will withstand whatever criticism has yet to throw at them, whatever cultural changes are in store. But with Benjamin's evident reluctance to toe the party line - despite his personal affinity for the Boulez aesthetic - and the probability that much of Sounding the Century has still to be planned on the hoof, it would be encouraging to think that some new perspectives may yet be opened up on the music of our timen