They never had it so weird

Radio 3 round-up

I always wondered what Leonard Bernstein's Candide was like, if only because one of the linchpin facts in Barbara Cook's biography was that she was in the original cast. Radio 3's concert version, broadcast on the Wednesday of last week as part of "The Fifties" season, boasted an "all-star cast", so said Radio Times, though no Barbara Cook. The music, it turned out, followed the style of the well-known overture - a deft medley of the best bits, detached and very smart-arse, with one big chromium- plated tune, and one really ghastly spiral of lurching key-changes which, once lodged in the memory, wouldn't be shifted. The characteristics of Bernstein's score shrewdly match the matter in hand, which is based on Voltaire's Candide debunking Leibniz's optimistic philosophy that "all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds". No one can decide what literary genre Voltaire's story belongs to; and no one seems to know whether what Bernstein made of it should be called a musical or an operetta. The thing grows even more elusive because of the number of writers involved: Lillian Hellman wrote the original libretto, and said getting Candide on the stage was the worst theatrical experience of her life. Extra lyrics were provided by Dorothy Parker, among others, and a revised version was made by Hugh Wheeler, with still more lyrics, this time by Stephen Sondheim. The broadcast was threaded on an explicatory narration read by Bill Paterson, and what with all the credits and cast changes involved, its authorship somehow got lost, at least to me. So, beneath the irony and mannerisms of this commentary, did the plot, though as it's a picaresque journey of discovery, it probably doesn't have much logic anyway.

Outside the theatre, Bernstein's vocal and choral music was based on religious themes. In Sacred and Profane on Sunday morning, Alex Knapp wound up a seven-part exploration of Jewish religious music by summarising what, in purely musical terms, defined it as Jewish. He said it always absorbed styles from outside, but traced its roots to ancient Levantine folksong and Temple music, and certain forms of cantillation could still be described as exclusively Jewish. This final programme included popular songs with catchy tunes and cumulative texts, appealing to children and traditionally sung in the home at Passover, as well as unaccompanied psalm settings - one in baroque style by Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jewish contemporary of Monteverdi, and the other in a decorous classical style, by the 19th- century composer, Louis Lewandowski, who in 1864 became choir director of the New Synagogue in Berlin. Both settings were apparently detached from traditional Hebrew cantillation, and, more understandably, quite free from archaisms like the moody minorish flavour and exotic augmented intervals of modern classical music deliberately seeking a Jewish flavour - by Ernest Bloch, for example. As Knapp pointed out, those features exist in all kinds of music.

Not many composers can have been so richly documented as Ralph Vaughan Williams, and on Friday afternoon, again as part of "The Fifties", Mining the Archive traced the last eight years of the composer's life, beginning with a recording of his funeral in Westminster Abbey; the reassuring voice of Richard Dimbleby described the scene as the bronze casket was taken from the sanctuary to the North Choir Aisle and everyone sang "Come down, O love divine" to Vaughan Williams's tune. There was a lump in my throat, and this was only the beginning. RVW's own snorting dismissal, in a radio talk he gave in 1950, of the "latest orders from Germany" regarding period performance, followed by a bit of the St Matthew Passion which he conducted at the Leith Hill Festival, brought us back to earth, and Jan DeGaetani's excruciating hoot in the Ten Blake Songs of 1957 should have tested anyone's endurance well beyond its normal limits. Thank God for the amiable Ninth Symphony, proving the octogenarian had none of his rough edges worn down by age, heard at the end of the programme in a recording of its first performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent, which took place less than four months before Vaughan Williams died.

Not only was the programme very well put together, but it treated its subject with the sort of plainness he would have appreciated - no apologies, no "attitude", and an excellent, restrained script.

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