On The Air
Friday 21 May 1999
Looking back at that decade now, it seems full of action on the international scene as the old European avant garde gracefully faded against the bright lights of the United States, but on these islands it was surely one of the low points of the century. It takes a massive effort even to think of reviving more than a handful of the compositions that then flowed so freely.
Good for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then, to have aired two of Matthews's bigger pieces in fresh, well-prepared performances conducted by Jac van Steen (Radio 3, Tuesday). His music always appeared at the time to have the virtues of substance rather than of novelty, and it certainly does now. The bright orchestral palette and strong lyrical sense are put to quite searching expressive ends, creating a counterpoint between gloom and brilliance that is reflected in the music's tendency to run at two levels of speed simultaneously.
A high-energy surface and slow-moving undercurrents: they are just the thing for a piece called Chaconne. Like the music of Michael Tippett, it has its roots in the music of the Renaissance. Also as in Tippett, the harmonies of the two levels may clash. The longer and more recent of these pieces, In the Dark Time, is more cohesive as it moves through sections that evoke autumn, winter and spring. But the detail and the basic material are less striking.
Chaconne, on the other hand, builds up to a shrill, Mahlerish evaporation and an epilogue of slowly spreading strings, and it stays in the memory.
A century earlier, the Vienna-based contemporaries Johannes Brahms and Ignaz Brull used to meet and try out works together at the piano. So what went wrong for Brull? This week's Radio 3 afternoon concerts revived his piano concertos with Martin Roscoe and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins (the same forces have recorded these works for Hyperion Records' Romantic Piano Concertos series).
From the sound of the cultivated, amiable and well-proportioned Second Concerto, Brull was a master of the vivacious touch and the heightened hush. Using well-tried harmonic and emotional resources, his music's poetry lies in a spacious lyrical ease, lightly handled, and its surprises are small but genuine: the timpani quietly joining in the opening piano solo, or the last-minute extension of an otherwise timid finale. One hearing will do, but the music was worth the time spent in its company.
This was the sort of Romantic byway that Classic FM's afternoon concerts used to explore. Now things are changing there. After years of Radio 3's claiming that it isn't trying to compete with Classic FM, the newer station has moved the battle on to Radio 3's ground. This looks serious. Certainly, if Natalie Wheen or Rob Cowan went to Radio Invicta ("Today's Music for Kent") I'd follow them, but there is more to this than just poaching names. Radio 3 revamps its weekend afternoons, so Classic FM plays the Wheen trump card on, yes, weekend afternoons. Then Classic FM sets magazine programmes against Radio 3's Night Waves, exploiting the latter's lightness on music.
Sweetest of all, Rob Cowan's sharp-minded record review gets in just ahead of the Sunday late-night horror show of your least favourite contemporary tunes. It appears that Radio 3 is unexpectedly being challenged to raise its game. The coming months should be fun.
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