Music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
Lest anyone think that Radio 3 was devoted to seasonal baubles, The Finishing Touch last Saturday afternoon took music back to its only begetters: musicians. First of a masterclass series that promises much, this programme featured teacher James Gibb with postgraduate student Juliet Allen playing Beethoven's E minor Sonata, Op 90. Pianists both amateur and professional (but especially amateurs, who must surely count for a goodly number of R3 listeners) will have welcomed this urbane display of insight and wisdom. More's the pity there was only time for a full discussion of the first movement.

After all, as Gibb took pains to show, the drama is in the detail. Through minute attention to attack, dynamics and phrasing he brought a whole new world of expressive nuance to Allen's playing. By way of contrast, there was also the tale of the famous pianist (name withheld) who startled a well-informed listener with a fine but wayward reading of a classical work. "And what edition are you using?" the listener asked. "Edition?" replied the master. "Haven't a clue. I've not seen the music in 20 years."

It was a happy anecdote, both as a warning to heed and to ignore the text. Gifted performers will always ennoble the music, urtext or otherwise. If they happen to be composers themselves, they may even displace the composer's intentions, not least in areas of taste and technique. Mahler the conductor-composer is famous for re-scoring Schumann's symphonies. In Chopin by Arrangement last Sunday, the subject was a lesser-known act of musical refurbishment: the Chopin First Piano Concerto as re-scored by Mily Balakirev and played in a fine old recording by Friedrich Gulda and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

There were certainly gains in this version, which commends itself for more frequent use in the concert hall. To the long orchestral prelude, knotty and raw as Chopin left it, Balakirev brought a patina of woodwind melody and a dash of humour. An overall sense of fullness was no less welcome, not least for its echoes of things to come: Scriabin and Rachmaninov, where the school of Chopin met the school of Tchaikovsky on the grandest scale. On the debit side was the lack of pressure of invention, the besetting fault of many such arrangements. Velvet and plush in its custom-built outfit, it purred along like a sleek simulacrum of the original. Saint- Saens's two-piano scoring of the "Funeral March" Sonata had a similar fat-cat feel. A medley of versions of the "Minute" Waltz, arranged by virtuosi to display their skills, had the tune in thirds and decked out with vulgar ornament. Tarty but honest.

For The Life and Times of the Symphony, running through Christmas week, Independent music critic Stephen Johnson set out his composers in pairs. On Boxing Day it was the turn of Mahler and Sibelius, and here was the strangest of noises: not the miraculous link forged by Sibelius between the first movement and scherzo of his Fifth Symphony as we know it, but the ungainly juncture of its original version sounding oafish and lumpen.

Famously "the slave of his themes", Sibelius struggled for years like a virtuous Platonist until their ideal form was discovered. The artistic reward was a rare sense of the inevitable, but the price could be heard in that awkward break, sounding like a mighty grumble. He'd reached a brick wall, thrown in the towel, and the music says take it or leave it. There are times, after all, when we all feel like that. Not so many, however, have second thoughts that encompass the sublime.