Radio & TV round-up

In a week that included a number of outstanding broadcasts, the ear was first caught and held by a marvellous concert on BBC Radio 3 given by Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the series Towards the Millennium. Sub-titled "The Fifties", it brought the sometimes maligned avant-garde of that period into glowing focus with a magnificent performance of Stockhausen's Gruppen, John Carewe and Daniel Harding joining Rattle to direct the three ensembles that Stockhausen places in fascinating tempo and texture relationships with each other.

Music that always sounded wild and exhilarating now reveals a tremendous precision and control, not to speak of an alluring and poetical textural surface. The cosmic power and ornithological joys of Messiaen's Chronochromie provided an exotic foil to Stockhausen's post-expressionist muse, and the fascinating combination of tonality and emergent dodecaphony in Stravinsky's Agon completed the programme.

This week's Composer of the Week was Guillaume de Machaut. This astounding and, to modern ears, radical 14th-century master was brought to life by Antony Pitts and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson in a way that avoided elitism without becoming chatty, a definite plus at a time when Radio 3's tone is under attack in some quarters. His love life and what we know of biographical facts leapt across the seven intervening centuries to touching effect, while works like Le lai de la fonteine made an overwhelming impression.

Despite notable successes, TV has never managed to challenge the authority of radio in broadcasting documentary and dramatised material on musical subjects. The point was focused once more when Channel 4 showed Elgar's Tenth Muse on Tuesday, a short drama about the ageing composer's relationship with the young Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi. The playing of the two protagonists by James Fox and Selma Alispahic was invested with a touching emotional truth, and the filming on location at the composer's Sussex cottage projected a characteristically Elgarian melancholy. But nagging doubts began to emerge.

Elgar was known to be very susceptible where young ladies were concerned, especially during the lonely years after his wife's death, but d'Aranyi is not even mentioned in the standard Elgar biographies. It seems to have been a very minor dalliance and not to be compared to the relationship with Vera Hockman, which lightened his final years.

This programme's claim that d'Aranyi resurrected Elgar's creative belief in the languishing Cello Concerto (beautifully played here by Natalie Clein) is difficult to countenance. And would upper-crust behaviour really have been as bestial as portrayed here in one social gathering? Writer Nigel Gearing and director Paul Yule subtly distorted too many facts in the interest of their own romantic vision. A poignant aura hung over the film, but it was at some remove from reality.

ANTHONY PAYNE

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