Rhymes of the ancient mariner

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The Independent Culture
The week's radio began with Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, listeners being privy to his views on ghosts, mermaids and the species and genera of dreams. As recorded in one of Keats's letters, the account of a walk with the author of Xanadu was read by Simon Callow in The Unknown Coleridge from Wednesday to Friday on Radio 3. Placing the late verse and prose of the poet's Highgate years in the context of his reputation for failure, biographer Richard Holmes brought new lustre to its domestic imagery and subtle diction. This was first-class radio, which made pulling the book from the shelf to find out for yourself seem like a distinctly secondary occupation.

Above all, perhaps, the strength of the series lay in its particularity, creating time and place in the mind's eye from a simple study in words. Much of the channel's musical output last week shared this quality of specific occasion, linking music to its actual occurrence as something to be created, discovered and shared.

The 10-minute report on the craft of bowmaking that appeared in the interstices of Friday's relay from the Manchester International Cello Festival was a case in point, illustrating a hidden world of activity to complement this marathon event at the Royal Northern College of Music. From leading soloists to promising students, everyone seemed to be there. Karine Georgian played a recent work by Smirnov, and Steven Isserlis gave a moving account of the Elgar concerto. In addition, 10 cellists led by Ralph Kirsbaum premiered Uninterrupted Movement, specially composed for the occasion by Alexander Goehr to explore the rarely heard medium of grouped cellos.

Music for unusual combinations is often sustained on the Johnsonian principle that simply being done at all is its salient feature. Not so with Goehr's new piece, which took its starting point from the groupings and varied skills of the performers to make a richly textured pattern of linked solos and tuttis. While the rhetorical tone recalled Schoenberg and Brahms, cadences that sloped off in unexpected directions had a Faure-like sense of oblique arrival and departure. The distribution of applause and wine at the end (a bottle each for players and composer) was nicely described, with none of that gushingly lyrical description one overhears during broadcasts from the Proms. Just pure radio verisimilitude.

If challenges of technique are fuel to Goehr's imagination, for his near- contemporary Malcolm Williamson the enduring creative ideal has been the cause of peace. Written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations and dedicated to the memory of Harold Wilson, "architect of peace", With Proud Thanksgiving, broadcast on Sunday afternoon, showed a mixed provenance but an unswerving skill in its evolution of a sustained melodic line through an orchestral background of rippling chromatic harmonics. Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Philharmonic, recorded last November at Lancaster University, made perfect sense of its modern-medieval flavour; not post- modern pastiche, but something close in spirit to the Gothic grandeur of late symphonic Hindemith: the smell of old cathedrals with a Catholic sense of colour in immoderate profusion.