Radio 3 round-up; History can wait

Robert Maycock on how R3's output belies the myth of musical progress
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The Independent Culture
France loomed large all week on Radio 3. After the opening Bartok in Sunday's recording of a Pierre Boulez Prom it was Paris all the way for two hours. Les Six have been Composers of the Week. Today the most familiar of them, Francis Poulenc, has a further session all to himself in Mining the Archive.

Thirty years ago it wouldn't have been Poulenc but Arthur Honegger who came top of the Six, all the rest being thought frivolous or suspiciously prolific. Now the most interesting to many is Germaine Tailleferre, whose blend of the lyrical, the classical and the gleeful has matured with time. The week's broadcasts have put a spotlight on Georges Auric and Louis Durey - who have been the most neglected.

Another whiff of revisionism came with Sunday's After the Revolution, a recital by the violinist Sophie Langdon and pianist Nigel Hill, presented by Langdon herself with insight and wry observation and played with energy and commitment. How many serious musicians, until quite recently, would have placed Poulenc's Sonata as the centrepiece, and surrounded him with Jean Francaix and Lili Boulanger? Francaix, one of the few composers of any age who can make you laugh - his music often sounds like an aural version of a Jacques Tati film - even now doesn't get his due for ingenuity and intelligence. Boulanger used never to be played at all. But it needs no special pleading to recognise the individuality of her Trois petites pieces - post-Faure with fizz.

Revisionism is not the right word as it implies there is history to revise. With the millennium approaching, many people want to define this century's music. The annual "Towards the Millennium" concert series, about to arrive at the Fifties, is one symptom. But the programmes look less like history and more like personal taste as they advance. All we can really write about times close to our own, in which we may be actively involved, is journalism. The history will have to wait.

In the last century, a journalistic history of music would have rated Cherubini, Meyerbeer and Bruch well above Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Debussy. With the early part of the 20th, the Boulez perspective nicely summarised in Sunday's From the Proms - Debussy's Jeux leading on to Messiaen and Boulez himself - is already starting to look stale. Radio 3's own unanalysed summary of the period's French music this week feels truer to the balance of musical influences that have endured. Did that injection of Austro-German backbone into French sensuality, the model of musical progress the universities like to teach us, lead anywhere except to a well-filled cul de sac? If that is the true course of history, why do we persist in finding Shostakovich more absorbing than Stockhausen, or Bernstein than Babbitt? How frustrating that we can never know how the 21st century's historians will judge us!