Music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
The last 10 days of broadcasting on Radio 3 have been particularly rich in new and unfamiliar music, with a live relay from the Royal Opera House of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina (the greatest opera never to have appeared on our professional stage, as one observer once put it), the premiere of Pierre Boulez's dazzling ...explosante-fixe..., again taken live from a London Sinfonietta concert in the QEH, and a pair of Composers of the Week that made a veritable assault on our bastions of ignorance.

There seems to have been a blanket of incomprehension and prejudice covering the music of Pfitzner in this country. Figures of the weight of Bruno Walter and Thomas Mann spoke of Palestrina in glowing terms, backed up by those few who had seen Continental stagings of the opera, but a brave if indifferent semi-pro staging of it some 15 years ago in London only increased suspicion that Pfitzner was a boring old post-Wagnerian. His polemical writings concerning the evils of avant-gardism and the preservation of German art sounded queasily close to Nazi ideas and didn't improve matters.

Leo Black, in his caring presentation of him for Composer of the Week, showed a very different, if still somewhat ambivalent, figure and Pfitzner emerged as a composer of exquisite, albeit austere, sensibility and modest individuality, all within a style that encouraged more than one of his contemporaries to over-write and over-indulge. Covent Garden's staging of Palestrina (alas, now ended) confirmed, if it needed doing, that the opera is indeed an inspired masterpiece, daring in its pacing and colour, gentle yet also capable of visionary intensity. Black's choice of vocal, chamber and orchestral pieces proved that Pfitzner has more than one string to his fiddle.

Concertos predominated in the selection of orchestral music, one for violin, two (out of three) for cello, and what fine pieces they are. Most ambitious and revelatory, perhaps, was the splendid B minor Violin Concerto, simply teeming with ideas, its lone movement ranging widely and with lightning concentration of structural forces. Mahlerian expansion, Mozartian gallantry - all are subsumed within Pfitzner's cultivated individuality, yielding a charm of manner that can encompass a whole world of profoundly affecting ideas and emotions.

This week, while Pfitzner was receiving his late-evening repeats (the last is at midnight tonight), Charles Koechlin was being treated to an even more determined restoration as the midday Composer of the Week. A still more mysterious and unfamiliar figure than Pfitzner, Koechlin produced a gigantic and mostly unknown repertory in all genres. So much so that we were able to hear world premieres each day, alongside a number of UK premieres.

Koechlin was admired by all his contemporaries - his long life spanned those of both Faure and Boulez - and the variety and quality of the pieces we heard on Monday told us why. The orchestral Hymn to the Sun, often at the unison, made an extraordinary impression, while three of his Jungle Book pieces, replete with trampling and trumpeting elephants, immediately captivated the earn Anthony Payne