On The Air
Friday 14 May 1999
The two programmes made for fascinating comparisons, representing in an extreme form the two basic approaches TV adopts when dealing with music. To go from one to the other resulted in something of a cultural shock, and not merely because of the types of music involved. John Akomfrah's film on the four-times married, pot-smoking legend who created single- handed much of what we now think of as jazz, was a dazzling visual treat.
Indeed, was its style just a little bit too alluring? Those landscape and cityscape shots, with their greys, filtered pale yellows and lime greens that linked biographical and musical material were almost self- consciously gorgeous, and there were times when they came close to distracting us from Satchmo's gutsy and colourful life and art. But that is a minor niggle, for time and again this film illuminated the musical revolution Armstrong achieved, with its astutely chosen comments from the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Humphrey Lyttleton drawing attention to what one is tempted to call the symphonic breadths of Armstrong's trumpet lines, and, in Marsalis's nicely unexpected phrase, the pain and playfulness of its bluesiness. The life, too, was sketched with humour and sympathy, and the film may come to be seen as a classic of its kind.
On the other channel, Anne-Sophie Mutter's performance of Beethoven's C Minor Sonata, Opus 13, No 2, with pianist Lambert Orkis, was being presented with the sobriety which has characterised all the films in this series devoted to the composer's complete violin sonatas. Virtuosity of the kind which could yield secrets in the biographical format of the Armstrong film would have been merely attention-seeking here, but without the range of visual stimulants provided by, say, a full orchestra what is the filmmaker to do? David Stevens relied on the powerful charm of Miss Mutter's person, with her wonderfully graceful bowing arm, and on Orkis's cat-like precision, letting the performance make its points without hindrance. Perhaps this was not television to set the world alight, but what playing! Ultimately, one was relieved not to be distracted from Beethoven's musical vision by the kind of cross-cultural pretensions and location shooting which characterised Yo-Yo-Ma's films of Bach's cello suites.
On the same evening, BBC Radio 3 also had something of considerable interest to offer. For something like 80 years, Bax's In Memoriam - Padraig Pearse has been thought to exist only in piano score, but this open avowal of the composer's republican sympathies has recently come to light in full orchestral dress, and it was fascinating to hear another work from what was arguably his richest creative period.
It was splendidly performed by Vernon Handley and the BBC Philharmonic in a concert of Bax's rarities, which also included the late Piano Concertante for the left hand, with Margaret Fingerhut as the authoritative soloist.
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