No explanations required

Radio 3 round-up
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The Independent Culture
If only composers could be persuaded to talk, to discuss their pieces, to explain themselves before the event, it has often been argued, then audiences might not have such problems with contemporary music. Hence the proliferation of composers' residencies, open rehearsals, educational schemes, pre-concert chats, and so on. But what if works are intrinsically unamenable to picking apart, or composers less than proficient at putting themselves over? And, if a piece is cogent enough, ought it not to be left to convey its own message without someone, even the composer, telling us what to think or feel?

Last Tuesday evening, Radio 3 gave itself up to an orgy of explaining. First there was the world premiere of Jonathan Harvey's Third String Quartet in the Arditti Quartet's concert from Pebble Mill. In his platform discussion with the presenter Chris Wines, Harvey talked of his intention to de-corporealise string quartet texture by conceiving the piece as a kind of kaleidoscope of a dozen skittering source-figures in the top ranges of the four instruments - and some of these were duly demonstrated.

No doubt this exercise could be said to have justified itself if Harvey's benign sincerity persuaded even a few listeners to persist beyond the "squeaky gate" impact of the opening and to follow the rather haunting drones and dance patterns that intermittently emerged further on. All the same, any attentive listener could probably have intuited Harvey's initial premise for themselves. What proved more fugitive was the work's overall form - why one thing followed another; why it ran to 16 minutes - about which he had said virtually nothing.

Then there was the British premiere of Elliott Carter's recent Fifth Quartet. This was preceded by a whole 20-minute interval feature in which Sue Knussen alternated snips of interview with the composer himself - happily sounding as collected and amusing as ever at 87 - and with the first violinist, Irvine Arditti. Carter explained the work's formal concept as a succession of six short character pieces, introduced and linked by more disparate passages, as though the players were rehearsing the music as they went along. All of which offered real help to first-time listeners in grasping a structure that, after all, hustles through 12 sections in 20 minutes. But Arditti's recurrent emphasis on the relative accessibility of the result compared with Carter's earlier quartets was probably a mistake. For, whatever the thinness of textures and contrasts of mood between movements, Carter's preference for a continuous regeneration of material, rather than traditional thematicism, remains a demanding process to follow.

Later in the evening found George Benjamin conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an attractive Maida Vale programme from May 1994 (why so long in the can?). Introducing, with orchestral illustrations, Berg's Altenberglieder, he analysed the filigree opening texture, showing how it homed in on a chord that generated much of the subsequent music and epitomised the curious amalgam of constructivism and romantic feeling in Berg's output. It was a model expose of its kind, almost charming us out of asking why a work so vivid and picturesque as the Altenberglieder - or, for that matter, Benjamin's own Wallace Stevens setting, A Mind of Winter, which followed - needed any introduction at all. On the other hand, Benjamin's conversation with the French composer Tristan Murail about the UK premiere of the latter's clangorous Sillages could profitably have told us less about the work's commissioning by a Japanese bank, and more about the interesting way its deployment of micro-intervals seemed to transform tone-colour rather than tuning.

Moral. If pre-chat is to serve a genuine purpose beyond sales talk, it should concentrate upon what is not likely to be obvious to the reasonably attentive ear, and, in particular, it should not pretend that the authentically difficult is easy. On a diet of soft centres, a tough nut can be a welcome change.

BAYAN NORTHCOTT

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