Reviews: Radio Round-up

Classic Countdown (Classic FM)

Sheer niceness seems to be the secret. For who could object to the persistent delusion of Classic FM's late-evening linkman, Michael Mappin, that Richard Strauss wrote an opera entitled The Loves of Diana, or to Quentin Howard assuring a failed participant in the Saturday phone- in Classic Quiz that Berlioz's first wife was called Harrietta Simpson, when the two of them are patently such lovely people.

But the fount of all niceness has to be the gentle, laid-back transatlantic burr of Paul Gambaccini, who contrives to sustain sweetness and light through the entire three-hour span of Classic Countdown each Saturday morning by the simple expedient of refraining from any information, commentary or judgement of the slightest musical interest whatever.

Maybe the programme's original planners felt there was no point in directly challenging Radio 3's evergreen Record Review.. So Classic Countdown concentrates essentially on sales, with the current top five compilation discs revealed in the first hour, the 15 most lucrative individual titles in the second and third, and a combined ordering right at the end. The source of the sales-figures is not explained but presumably they originate from the programme's sponsor, W H Smith. It might be mildly protested that if one were looking for a disc of lesser-known Bach Cantatas or the complete works of Webern, one would hardly expect to find them in a Smith subsidiary such as Our Price. As if obliquely to ease its conscience, Classic Countdown does intersperse a listeners' request "encore" slot, and some up-and-coming "bubblers" - including a weekly "sure shot" chosen by Robert Cowan of Classic FM's other, more genuinely exploratory record review, the Friday evening Classic Verdict. But it would be interesting to know how all this reflects the personal tastes of Mr Gambaccini, who has, after all, often been credited with having "made" that Gorecki symphony of a couple of years back.

Even more interesting, however, are the apparent preoccupations of popular "classical" taste as revealed week by week. Certain of them should hardly surprise us. Exactly a century ago, Robert Newman founded the Proms on the pot-pourri principle: a mix of light classics and pops that was intended gradually to lead its audience on to higher things. Yet the ubiquity of compilation discs suggests that the pot-pourri still reigns supreme - though it would scarcely have occurred to Newman and his successors in the music appreciation movement to assemble items under such mood categories as "Tranquillity" or to entitle their promotions Turbo Classics. Again, the Three Tenors phenomenon is surely but the latest reincarnation of a popular taste for Italianate vocalism that dates back at least as far as Caruso and McCormack.

The popularity of baroque, whether at breakfast or whenever, is another story that has run since the 1950s, when the rediscovered Vivaldi was first adopted as the muzak of the intelligentsia. Indeed, this would seem the only plausible explanation for the success of Michael Nyman who, whatever his sources somehow always contrives to reduce them to a pulsating sub- baroque. Even the current plethora of plainchant and "faith minimalism" could be construed as part of the same infatuation with the religiose which long ago brought us Master Ernest Lough singing "Oh for the Wings of a Dove" - a dulcet strain itself flying high in the charts once more as part of the television-prompted compilation The Choir.

As last Saturday's programme reminded us, that still leaves the rather more ominous portent of Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary. This purports to be "a seamless fusion of the classical and the ethnic, composed by Karl Jenkins, performed by Miriam Stockley and the London Philharmonic". But the tracks broadcast in recent Classic Countdowns, interspersing bits of World Music at its blandest with Victorian chromaticism at its most oleaginous, sound suspiciously like an attempt to contrive a new genre of "Countdown Music", to chase even the Renaissance saxophony of Officium out of the charts. What on earth is classical about Adiemus? The ascendancy of such a concoction only highlights the strange paucity in Classic Countdown of core classical repertoire. No full-length performance even of the symphonies of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Mahler, let alone the operas of Mozart, Verdi or Wagner, seem to have a hope of reaching this particular Top 20. One begins to wonder to what extent the programme is really concerned with the genuine public for classical music even at its broadest, and to what extent with simply maximising the market by all and any means.

Meanwhile, Mr Gambaccini has acquired a Radio 4 slot entitled Striking Chords in which he genially questions contrasting guests about their favourite records. Press rumours that he is shortly to replace the long- running Composer of the Week on Radio 3 have yet to be confirmed...

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