Music on Radio: The age of innocence;

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If music is a real concern, there can be few more revealing experiences than switching on the radio in the middle of a fascinating piece one has never heard, only to discover at the end that it is by a composer one thought one loathed. Back in the 1970s, Radio 3 actually used to connive at such epiphanies with a series entitled The Innocent Ear, devised and usually introduced by Robert Simpson. Programmes generally comprised two or three complete works in contrasting forms and styles, about which listeners were told in advance no more than what they were scored for and how long they lasted. The object, Simpson would reiterate, was not to guess the composer - though it was always difficult to refrain from trying to - but to listen with ears uncorrupted by preconceptions. There must, indeed, be not a few who remain lastingly grateful for some discovery or other when Mr Simpson revealed all at the end of each broadcast, and who would welcome a return of the Innocent Ear idea.

Meanwhile, we have at least a little something-of-the-sort in the "blind tasting" section of Off the Record. This magazine series, introduced by Robert Cowan and produced by Martin Cotton, is part of the revamped Radio 3 Saturday morning schedule, while such regulars as Record Review and Private Passions are taking their eight-week summer break. Since Record Review inevitably preoccupies itself with matters of repertoire, interpretation and recording quality, it was certainly high time another series delved into the techniques, economics and politics of the mighty record industry which, it did not need Norman Lebrecht to remind us, directly or indirectly conditions the musical life of us all.

In the event, and despite some nifty linkmanship from Cowan, it rapidly became apparent in last Saturday's edition that the salient problem for Off the Record is likely to remain the raising of too many major issues at once for any of them to be discussed in detail. True, certain concerns are being carried through the series: each programme opens with a Feedback- style selection of listeners' views (de rigueur in any BBC magazine series these days, it seems), and includes a featurette on a specific recording venue and a successive stage in the making of a CD. Last Saturday also included items on the current state of the smaller independent record companies and why a hard core still collect LPs and 78s. And just to stir the pot of technico-aesthetic opinion, there was Cowan's studio guest Paul Myers, CBS producer of some of the most celebrated recordings by Georg Szell and Glenn Gould. When he said that a recorded performance needs to be slightly exaggerated to compensate for the fact that the performers cannot be seen, or that he disliked some of the CD reissues of his LP recordings because they had been remixed by others, positively philosophical dilemmas loomed: are records really performances at all or documents; and whose sound, finally, do they represent?

The blind tasting itself was necessarily confined to matters of interpretation and sound. Anthony Payne was asked to comment upon three recordings of Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21 in C, K467, without knowing who the performers were. In the event, he was pretty dismissive of what proved to be the Geza Anda version used in the soundtrack of Elvira Madigan, preferring a reading played and conducted by Howard Shelley with the London Mozart Players for its "bright and alive address to the structure". It was at this point that Myers launched his naughtiest squib. "Do we," he asked, "seek too much depth in Mozart's concertos, which were, after all, composed as entertainment?" Thus an entire revolution in taste since the last war was called into question. A bit much to resolve in the last couple of minutes of Off the Record. Yet the programme surely has potential enough to become regular; if not once a week, at least monthly.