Silence was golden

music on radio
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The Independent Culture
I remember hearing as a boy, in the early Fifties, a live BBC broadcast of a rousing performance of Debussy's La Mer, in which the announcer, carried away by enthusiasm, told us we'd been listening to Arturo Toscanini conducting what he hoped we'd agree was a particularly fine performance of that masterpiece.

The shockwaves occasioned by this personalised announcement were palpable. "What made him think," queried my form master next day, "that we needed his opinion?" Those were the days of detached, strictly factual presentations, and a boundary mark had been overstepped.

How times have changed. Now that the Proms are back with us, hardly an evening passes without us having to listen to a flood of such announcements. If there were a single aspect of Radio 3's present broadcasting style I could be allowed to banish, it would be the stream of improvisatory material that often links and introduces live performances. No sooner has the applause started, after even the most moving interpretation, than coy observations or chirpy PR material about the performers' coming dates obtrude. Silence is infinitely preferable.

At the same time, the concert interval slots have given opportunities for more serious fare, and last Friday's Prom, a commemoration of 50 years of BBC broadcasting to the Soviet Union, was graced by a particularly intriguing talk about Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony from Gerard McBurney. Ever since the appearance of Solomon Volkov's book Testimony, with its new material about the composer's private and political lives, facts have continued to emerge, and fresh insights into his music have become abundant.

McBurney, for instance, was able to put forward a convincing case for viewing the finale of the Fifth as a palpably anti-Stalinist tract, a point that would have been impossible for the authorities to prove after the famous 1937 premiere, but which the audience seems to have intuitively grasped, to judge by reports of the ovation. No "artist's reply to just criticism" this, but a heroic attempt to suggest that the artist may survive a tyrant's crimes. McBurney has found allusions to some Pushkin settings by the composer in the symphony, which could not have been known at the time, and the poet's words provide strong evidence for his theory. After the performance of the symphony that followed, one wondered how many in the Prom audience were still viewing its coda as genuinely triumphal, and how many appreciated the ghastly subtext. The composer had a knife at his back, to use Rostropovich's striking observation, and did what was needed to survive. But that, too, is in the music for those with ears to hear. The calculated bombast says as much.

Immediately after each of the week's proms, a series of mini-documentaries about London's vanished concert halls, Lost in London, has enchanted the imagination. Brimful of facts, colourful evocations, vignettes, Andrew Green's narrations brought vividly to life the activities at St. James's Hall, Vauxhall Gardens and other places. Broadcasting at its imaginative best.