Radio round-up

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The Independent Culture
Performers, on the whole, are good at performing. It's as well that some of them are good at talking too, to judge from the litany of programmes requiring them to do so that now dot BBC radio's ever more celeb-orientated schedules. The results are very mixed. All too often this week I caught myself remembering a roguish quip by that excellent composer (and speaker), Hugh Wood. "The Composer Speaks. You hope that this is not what he does best."

At least there was no such danger in Voices (Radio 3, Monday and Tuesday), which put its Spotlight on Sarah Walker. "Absolute rubbish" were the opening words of Britain's fabulous mezzo- soprano, in reply to a mildly phrased suggestion by presenter Iain Burnside that the baroque was one of her specialities. There followed a good-natured riot of a conversation between Walker, who sounded as revved-up as a racehorse that's been fed too many oats, and her unfazed interviewer. Of her first operatic roles: "I used to play nothing but rejected queens." Of That Dress at the Last Night of the Proms: "Graham Johnson. It's all his fault. His and Dame Edna's." Of accompanists (to Burnside): "I think I've even worked with you." In the middle of all this were some more serious nuggets of information ("Recitals are the most difficult things to give, by far") and, of course, some celestial singing.

Just the Part (Radio 4, Sunday) ought to have worked equally well, but somehow didn't. It featured James Bowman, musing with presenter Rodney Milnes on the delights and difficulties of performing Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The problem was the general tone of factored- in spontaneity, of the kind that always risks sounding its opposite ("And then there's that wonderful moment, isn't there, when..." etc). There was just a shade too much of this for comfort, despite some good moments - Bowman, for example, recalling a staging in Australia, all of which he spent suspended on a trapeze (except when he managed to fall off).

Milnes was on much more ear-catching form in Radio 3's late-night repeat of Composer of the Week. His programmes on Lehr radiated a fascinating blend of encyclopaedic knowledge, crisp presentation and avuncular wit. A theme that emerged was that, whereas Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, for instance, "is simply about Men Behaving Badly", Lehr's scores often encompass a much subtler emotional range. Thus the daft scenario of The Land of Smiles (Wednesday), set alternately in China (!) and Austria, concerns Prince Sou-chong (here Richard Tauber in mesmerising form) and the enamoured Lisa (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), who's duly taken aback to discover that her beloved already has four wives back home in Peking. Much of the music, meanwhile, shone with an atmospheric mastery of genuinely Puccinian dimensions - a remarkable response by the composer of The Merry Widow to the passing of pre-First World War Vienna.

Listeners nostalgic for another bygone age, when Radio 3's manner wasn't quite as talk-obsessed as it is now, can be reassured by Donald Macleod's Through the Night, whose blend of off-the-beaten-track material and personable presentation is a constant pleasure to night owls such as myself. Monday's programme was a treat: an all-Schubert piano recital recorded for Swedish radio in 1990 by Hans Leygraf and played with an unaffected, Schnabel- like strength and loveliness. Meanwhile, on Classic FM, Michael Mappin's late-night sequences consistently come up with imaginative surprises of their own, while bypassing the bucketfuls of Adiemus II and David Helfgott that overpopulate the wavelength elsewhere. Both programmes show what nonsense the current phase of pseudo-competitive bickering between the two networks about up- or downmarket radio really is. Good presentation is just that: good.

Malcolm Hayes