The week on radio

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The Independent Culture
As the serendipitous hand clicked on Classic FM at 11.20am last Tuesday, a dulcet lady, over the purling accompaniment of Saint-Saens's "Dying Swan" music, was inviting listeners to "Smooth out your morning with a classic masterpiece introduced by Henry Kelly". And in came the ingratiating voice, with just a touch of classic unction, announcing "a hauntingly beautiful aria, `Ombra mai fu' from Cavalli's opera Xerxes". Cavalli...? Surely here was a classic Classic FM cock-up: some underling had confused the attributions on the playlist and Kelly did not even know that it was from a Handel opera - and one of his most famous arias, at that. Then, after the maddening interruption of an advert for used BMWs, the thing came on sounding suspiciously like Cavalli, and a hasty recourse to the New Grove Dictionary revealed that he did indeed compose an opera called Xerxes. Touche? Except that, by the end, all one had heard was a formulaic bit of Baroque high camp which any modestly gifted 17th-century Italian composer could probably have knocked up in an hour, whereas the later setting, known to the millions in its many transcriptions as "Handel's Largo", not only deserves the accolade "hauntingly beautiful" but, one would have thought, is just the sort of thing the station might be expected to broadcast 20 times a week.

Somehow this tiny double-take seemed to sum up the mixed blessing that is Classic FM on its fifth birthday. The positive achievements are not hard to summarise: that, far from seducing Radio 3's "fit audience... though few" down market, Classic FM, following through the "Nesun dorma" effect, has found a whole new public for popular classics; that it not only offers the best of classical bits, but whole works in its evening concerts and elsewhere, including such not-so-obvious choices as Haydn's opera Orpheus and Eurydice, which, but for Diana's death, would have been heard last Sunday; that, in sponsoring a charitable music trust, masterclasses and sundry other events, the station genuinely complements, rather than conflicts with, Radio 3's functions as commissioning patron and sustainer of orchestras; and that, while some of the adverts may get in the musical way (how feelingly one recalls the protagonist of Wagner's Siegfried struggling to the summit of Brunnhilde's rock only to be greeted by the snappy enquiry "Have you got a hernia?"), such irritations are far outweighed by the welcoming informality of the station in general.

On the other hand, it might be argued that, whatever the trimmings, Classic FM remains essentially a means of delivering as many listeners as possible to the advertisers; that this function inevitably tends towards a centripetal culture, with a limited number of titles relentlessly plugged, duly voted into "Top 20" lists of preferences by listeners, then resold to them in classic disc compilations, and so on in ever-diminishing circles; that the process tends to restrict the unfamiliar to safe choices of Baroque or Romantic also-rans, while of the "world's most beautiful music" from the Renaissance and Middle Ages, to say nothing of the classic traditions of non-Western cultures, so little is heard as to amount to an act of suppression; and that the whole thing exemplifies the creeping control of culture by the forces of economic domination prophesied by Adorno all of 50 years ago.

Well, no doubt the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or veers between such polarities from moment to moment of actual broadcasting. For, after all, many of the works partly or wholly heard are genuine classics, genuinely loved; and your supposedly well-informed critic was caught out by a little- known piece only last Tuesday, even if he cared little for it. All the same, there are times when Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" comes round for the nth blast, or one of those incessant little arrangements in different styles of the Classic FM cadence chirrups away, or the same silly advert gets its fifth hearing in a single evening, when one wonders how listeners of any musicality or thoughtfulness can stand so insane an intensity of sheer repetition.

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