radio in review

Xenakis must be one of the hardest composers to write about. He had no formal training as a composer, though Messiaen took him under his wing and told him to find his own way, not try to conform. Last Saturday afternoon, the Proms Feature, "Voices of the Stranger", made a pretty good job of picturing what Xenakis is about, weaving words and music continuously, informally, together so that they elucidated each other. At 75, Xenakis sounds resigned - he says he doesn't seek inspiration and doesn't even know if he ought to go on composing at all. His biographer, Nouritza Matossian, said his earliest works were inspired by Bartok, but he has always seemed to me one of the very few composers - Messiaen is another - who sprang upon the world fully armed. Which would certainly square with Xenakis's avowed intention to "get rid of what I am and behave as if I come from another planet".

"Powerful things are without sentiment," he said, and no doubt it's his privilege to contradict that by admiring the extremely emotional music of Brahms. Matossian said that Xenakis was very shy about talking of poetic inspiration and that, throughout his composing life, he has been responding to the early death of his mother. After Xenakis escaped from Greece in 1945, with an engineering diploma prudently stuffed in his pocket, he was lucky enough to get a job in Le Corbusier's office in Paris. He was one of a large cosmopolitan staff that worked long hours for little money, and when Xenakis designed the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair in 1958, he had to fight Le Corbusier to get due acknowledgement for what he had done. The hyperbolic paraboloids of the pavilion's walls were, according to architect Peter Buchanan, something that many architects were playing with at the time.

Buchanan provided the only real touch of critical sharpness in the programme. The few buildings that Xenakis designed after leaving Le Corbusier were, in his words, inept and naive, full of crude Corbusian cliches. Similar opinions of his music aren't rare, but if Xenakis's application of Brownian movements and stochastic principles to sound seems to result in something like cliches, at least he arrived at them in his own way, and it may well be, as he once pointed out in an interview, that our ears are pre-conditioned along lines that his are not. If musicians think Xenakis's music unmusical, so much the worse for them. Forty-odd years after it was written, his first orchestral piece, Metastasis, still sounds like a real breakthrough.

One of the teachers Xenakis tried in Paris was Arthur Honegger. Honegger didn't like what Xenakis was doing, and Xenakis didn't like Honegger as a person: "Milhaud was much kinder." By the end of Graham Fawcett's second programme in Composer of the Week, he had painted a brimming picture of French cultural life in the Teens and Twenties, without giving much idea of Honegger's character, beyond the fact that he listed four kinds of sport among his hobbies and drove around Paris in a red Bugatti. Honegger's passion for machines and speed linked him with the Italian Futurists and Revolutionary Russian composers such as Mossolov, though he would probably have despised both for their lack of musical craft. By accident, he was associated with Les Six, though he disliked the music of their artistic godfather, Satie, who, in turn, heard little he liked in Honegger's music. Honegger said he was more concerned to make good individual works than to cultivate an image or even a personal style, but excerpts from his operas Le roi David and Judith suggested that he spread himself pretty thin in trying to supply the musical equivalents of large public murals.

Outside this country, Honegger's five symphonies are played quite regularly. The first was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930, and the opening movement, heard on Wednesday, confirmed the impression of Honegger as a grim neo-classicist, with a taste for self-flagellation in the form of grey harmony and hectoring rhythms. Honegger greatly admired Albert Roussel, who, in the same year, for the same orchestra, wrote his Third Symphony - unimpeachably concise and exquisitely crafted - which, owing to many broadcasts by the BBC, has become a classic in this country. Although Honegger was 23 years Roussel's junior, he hardly added much to his mentor's musical language, and showed less wit and less sensitivity. Still, when the Nazis occupied Paris in 1941, he produced in his Second Symphony, heard in yesterday's programme, a statement that was concise, brave and sincere, with a particularly powerful slow movement. Perhaps it was irony, or perhaps it was mere inadvertence, that allowed him to indicate optimism at the end of the finale by breaking into a chorale in Lutheran style. He might have recollected how, in the previous war, Debussy had the wicked wit to turn "Ein feste Burg" into a menacing march.

Honegger: final programme 12noon today. Series repeated 11.30pm Mon-Fri next week