Radio round-up

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"Get out of show business," Mae West told Oscar Hammerstein II. "You've got too much class." It fell to Radio 2 last weekend to prove her right - on the second count, that is - as it marked the Hammerstein centenary. Here is a writer whose words stick in the memory as fast as the tunes they go to, and you can't even say that of Ira Gershwin.

Any fear that a retrospective might be bustin' out all over in corn as high as an elephant's eye melted before the sheer class of his composer collaborators. There was Jerome Kern to reinvent the operetta, then Richard Rodgers to create the musical play, quite apart from Sigmund Romberg and even, when it came to Carmen Jones, one Georges Bizet.

Carousel, the Rodgers score that gave the world's football crowds "You'll Never Walk Alone", came over with tremendous panache in a new radio production featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Alwyn. The singers were just right, mostly light-opera rather than actors' voices, free of the ponderousness that all-star opera casts have brought to recordings of musicals. Mandy Patinkin sounded more the rough-and-ready Billy Bigelow when he spoke than when he sang, but Deborah Myers' Julie Jordan and the Carrie / Mr Snow pair were spot-on.

However famous the songs, elaborate symphonic accompaniments and dance numbers carry much of the artistry, all too easily sidelined by the dialogue. In the long duet that builds up around "If I Loved You", you might sometimes be hearing the operetta Tchaikovsky never wrote, especially when the melody itself echoes his inspired mixing of unrelated phrases. Try predicting the two bars that follow the title words and you'll see the point. Not many "legit" opera composers of the time, 1945, could have brought it off. Followed the next night by an absorbing two-hour biography, this was by any standards a high spot of the week's music broadcasts and a proper, top-profile use of a licence-supported orchestra.

In so far as music criticism deals seriously with radio at all, it tends to concentrate on Radio 3, such are the cultural blinkers that most critics wear. At the least, this means that good things on the other networks get missed - such as the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra playing Guy Woolfenden last Friday, again on Radio 2. If you're in the new-music business and smirking, ask yourself if typecasting someone as a theatre composer isn't another case of cultural blinkers. Sure, Woolfenden has written for the RSC for decades, but he is a practical sort of musician, and the growth of the wind-band movement has also given him his head. A piece like Gallimaufry, with its witty ingenuities, expert layout, and a tune that stays with you as long as Carousel's, has helped thousands of players cut their musical teeth and stirred thousands more with the adventure of living music. Yet how many "contemporary" specialists have heard a note of it?

Radio 4 didn't have a great week on the classical front, apart from Paul Gambaccini's efforts, in Striking Chords, to make musicians of assorted backgrounds talk about passionate experiences - of the art, that is. Less contrived than it looked, the half-hour became an exercise in free-style, informal, down-to-earth criticism.

On Classic FM there's a special art of listening to be exercised: knowing when to expect the unexpected. Classic Verdict, on Fridays, is an offspring of this paper's "Double Play" column, with its pair of presenters swapping opinions on CD releases, but with fatherly bias put aside, it still makes lively radio, and it has a way of slipping in some pretty recherche stuff almost unnoticed. Out of 11 pieces played last week, five were new to me, including Bloch's Poem of the Sea and some recent Terry Riley.

More extraordinary still, Stanley Glasser blithely dropped Penderecki's violent Fifties Threnody into his "A to Z of Classical Music" on Monday. This is a quirky series with eccentricities all its own - you would expect the Emeritus Professor, University of London, to know better than to call Pelleas et Melisande Debussy's only opera - but it manages to make a subtle and quite radical shift in the listening agenda without sounding didactic. Too much class, clearly.

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