On Air: Airwaves - A nation in tune

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The Independent Culture
AFTER EARNESTLY scanning the pages of Radio Times for programmes that seem to invite comment, one's planned listening schedule can be unexpectedly overturned by serendipity. It will have escaped few people's notice that last week saw the televising of the Commonwealth Games, not an event of great musical significance, you might say.

But there were a number of intriguing opportunities to hear unfamiliar national anthems at the medal ceremonies, and there was also the chance to experience a rendering of "Land of Hope and Glory" which I will always cherish. Remember, there are no UK athletes at the games and so "God Save the Queen" is not used. We had already heard a thoroughly respectable version of Elgar's great tune, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, another was blasted forth over the speakers with iconoclastic gusto. Sue Barker pulled a face and thought that the band should have practised a bit more, but the performance's inspired-out-of-tuneness will have delighted the shade of Charles Ives, or indeed anybody who believes that perfect intonation does not guarantee exciting expression.

Next, after settling down to catch up with a programme I had recorded the previous day, I mistakenly pressed "radio" instead of "tape" and found myself listening to an item in Michael White's Best of Three, a son of Pick of the Week. He had chosen an excerpt from a new series, Opera in Action, whose Radio Times billing had not promised much. Just another sequence of big tunes with casual linking material, or so it seemed. I should have had more faith, for presenter Ruth Mackenzie, of Scottish Opera, fired a shot across the bows of the "sound-byte" brigade by placing Nessun Dorma sensibly in context, and showing just how much we missed when divorcing it from the surrounding drama. Puccini and indeed many other opera composers would, Mackenzie insisted, have been horrified to discover how their dramatic vision was being distorted by treating arias as isolated miniatures.

Encouraged, I tuned to Ms Mackenzie's second programme, unpromisingly described as a selection of opera highlights, and was not disappointed. This was far from being your standard sequence of operatic goodies. True, the music chosen was from the well-worn standard repertory, but everything that Mackenzie had to say proclaimed a searching mind and a profound awareness of the multi-layered expression of great music theatre. One of her most arresting perceptions concerned the "freeze-frames" - memorable image - of which music drama is capable, where action is temporarily stilled to examine the complexities of character and motivation behind a critical dramatic moment.

Constantly digging below the surface of a familiar number, she showed how opposed temporal perspectives could be articulated and how an audience's knowledge can be played off against a stage character's. Thoroughly recommended for further listening.

As for the tape I had been attempting to listen to: that proved worthwhile too. It covered the latter half of BBC Radio 3's "Danube Week" which brought us concerts and opera from Vienna, Eisenstadt and Budapest, while the mid-morning Sound Stories journeyed from the river's source to its outlet. The area's exotic cultural mix and bloody history were explored in depth by Donald Macleod. Ovid, Vlad the Impaler, Haydn, Bartok - all was here.