The week on Radio 3
Friday 08 August 1997
Doubtless this assertion would be wholly endorsed by his Commissioning Editor, Music (Policy), Hilary Boulding, and his Head of Presentation, Cathy Wearing, who seem to exert as much influence upon the daily content and style of Radio 3 as its Controller, Nicholas Kenyon - preoccupied as he evidently is by such grand projects as Sounding the Century. So it can be confidently expected that they will now extend the most "sophisticated understanding", for instance, to Mr Walter Grey of London N3, who complained (with reason!) in Tuesday's Letters to the Editor of the maddening plethora of Radio 3 trails that increasingly bung up the pauses between scheduled programmes. Or to Mr Frank Fahy of Southampton who, describing himself on Monday as a typical lay listener with little technical knowledge of music, requested (surprisingly?) not the kind of "entertaining mix" of classical music with "personable" links threatened by the forthcoming changes, but more detailed explanation of works, in the tradition of Anthony Hopkins's Talking about Music programmes, from which he could learn.
Aside from Composer of the Week and the odd snippet of concert presentation, it has not been so easy over the last few days to find Radio 3 programmes that measure up to Mr Fahy's requirements. Closest, perhaps, was David Fanning's introduction to the symphonic thought of the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli during the interval of last Sunday night's Prom. No single work was anatomised in detail, but by sketching in the personal background, identifying some of the sources of Kancheli's style and suggesting how he put his first three symphonies together from the starkest cross-cutting of aggression and minimalism, Fanning must have sharpened the ears of many listeners to the ensuing UK premiere of Kancheli's Third.
A couple of hours earlier, The African Mahler - surprisingly a first- ever radio feature by that ubiquitous film director and broadcaster, Tony Palmer - attempted no such thing. To be fair, this survey of the short, fraught life of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), Britain's first noted black composer, was primarily biographical in purpose. By rapidly shuffling a collage of readings, dramatised incidents and archival recordings, Palmer contrived to cover an amazing amount of ground in his 45 minutes, even if some of his methods were corny - such as announcing Coleridge-Taylor's death as if on the BBC News, or characterising the 40-year-old Elgar as an old crusty, when the sole surviving recording of his voice suggests it was light and nervous. In the end, Coleridge-Taylor's struggles and sufferings for black rights were more faithfully represented than his once famous magnum opus Hiawatha, snippets of which were continually subjected to voice-over readings from Longfellow by Sir John Gielgud, so that it was impossible to gauge its musical scope, let alone whether or not it deserves its latterday neglect.
No such uncertainty worried the makers of Saturday's Proms Feature, Magic Fire, a centenary paean to that late-Romantic wunderkind and Hollywood laureate, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which took the by now all too familiar line that recognition of his genius was held back until recently by the hegemony of Modernism. It is time this was challenged, not only because mid-century Modernism proved no comparable inhibition to the ready acceptance of Richard Strauss's late output or to the revaluation of Mahler, but because it obscures the real issue, which is whether, beneath the personal sheen of his sound and the supreme skill of his technique, Korngold had much of musical substance to say. Once again, a detailed exploration of a particular piece - say, the Violin Concerto before its performance in Tuesday night's Prom (see review overleaf) - would surely have been more helpful, and to many besides Mr Fahy.
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