You can be sure of Shellac

Radio 3 round-up
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The Independent Culture
Alas, The Shellac Show finished last Thursday, but its presenter Jeremy Nicholas seemed to imply there would be another series in the future. This nightly 45 minutes of recordings from the age of the 78rpm has been one of the most entertaining, informative and thought-provoking programmes on offer. It's partly made up of requests, and attracts the connoisseurs, or those who remember performers most of us have never even heard of. It's not a question of nostalgia, nor is the programme a gallery of grotesques. It opens the ears to some extraordinary music-making - Blanche Marchesi, on Thursday, whose coloratura in Goldschmidt's "Im Mai", recorded in 1906, was not just agile and accurate, but unbelievably pure and virtually without vibrato. Walter Morse Rummel playing "Jesus mortify us with Thy Grace" with deep and lovely piano sound, but just before each verse, imposing a heavy, measured ritardando as if his internal clockwork were winding down. Heifetz's classmate, Toscha Zeidl, playing a concoction from Brahms's Hungarian Dances with the scrumptious kind of violin tone you could almost eat (he ended up playing for films and dance bands). And I wouldn't mind a few more chances to hear the sort of beautifully made light music, like Eric Coates's "I pitch my lonely caravan", heard in The Shellac Show the previous night. More than 50 years ago, the Gramophone castigated Coates in no uncertain manner for trying to make essentially empty music sound important. In fact, what Coates did was the obvious, and with exquisite skill, and that's enough to make most other composers envious.

Nicholas was a mine of anecdotes - that the great Wagnerian contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heinck knew that she smelt, at any rate in summer, and admitted it without embarrassment, and that Nicholas's father-in-law bought Arthur ("Jamaican Rumba") Benjamin's old Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire, which for lovers of vintage cars or John Betjeman's verse, evokes, if not quite a cultural universe, at least a sizeable suburb.

Vintage Years on Friday afternoon paid tribute to the great Hungarian pianist Annie Fischer, who died last April, aged 80. London orchestral players called her Annie Ashtray, because she smoked so much. Peter Frankl said her style of playing would never seem old-fashioned because of its confidence and passion, that she hated recording because it made her neurotic about wrong notes (although she left some very fine discs), and that she always went for a "general interpretation", not hung up on detail. Which was exactly what made Annie Fischer valuable as an artist, because she affirmed the sovereignty of the unrepeatable moment. As Frankl said, the BBC recordings heard - Mozart's great C minor Sonata, two of Schumann's Kinderscenen, a Schubert Impromptu and Beethoven's D major Sonata, Op 10 No 3 - were as unmistakably marked by Fischer's musical personality, and as natural as handwriting.

By the Waters of Babylon is a new series of nine 10-minute programmes visiting the churches of expatriate communities in London. Last Friday the Reverend Alan Walker took a microphone (but no script) to the Italian Roman Catholic church of St Peter in Clerkenwell Road. Its atmosphere, partly evoked just by the acoustic in which speaking voices - Walker's and the priest's - were recorded, partly by the fervour of a small band of singers in the sort of unbuttoned music by Cherubini and Gounod you would rarely hear in an English church, and also by the unaccustomed timbre of that particular organ, was as strong as incense. But what does the church look like and how does it keep going economically?

Conductor Robert Ziegler's six-part series, Sekt, Smoke, Satire, began at midnight on Friday with a survey of the origins and development of cabaret songs, from Aristide Bruant, who flourished for five decades from the early 1870s, to Tom Lehrer's The Vatican Rag in the 1960s. The next five programmes will focus on Paris, Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe, Spain and, finally, England and the United States. The point has already emerged that cabaret songs are very much about verbal wit - usually of a sharp and satirical kind, which they lose once they are commercially exploited, like Marlene Dietrich's languid love song "Peter", which I never knew was originally about a girl hunting for her cat. Still, there are always exceptions, and the crusty baritone who sang the Great Depression song, "Brother, can you spare a dime?", in the 1930s sounded positively complacent when compared with the thrill of anger in Eartha Kitt's version, recorded only 18 months ago.

ADRIAN JACK

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