RADIO / From French to Greek, via Waterloo
Sunday 01 May 1994
Hunting for lovely music, I found Concert Hall (World Service), where Mark Lowther was introducing a glorious recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. 'The acme of shapelessness,' early critics called it, 'delirium, with no trace of harmony or melody.' Even Weber thought its composer was 'ripe for the madhouse'. In fact, Beethoven was ripe for a hearing-aid. In 1812, Louis Spohr played in the orchestra for its first performance, Beethoven's last as conductor. He said that the great man would crouch very low for the quiet bits and leap to his feet shouting when it got louder. Sadly, so deaf was he by then, he got the timing wrong. But his audience, better critics than the professionals, loved it. Lowther expressed the hope that somewhere among his listeners was a lucky soul about to hear it for the first time.
The music of Abba was celebrated in Waterloo Revisited (R2). Though at the time the group was dismissed as 'relentlessly trivial' (those critics again), Terry Wogan defends them, claiming that they were the best thing that ever came out of Eurovision. It's hard to decide if he was right or not, now that the ageing super- troupers have become an undergraduate cult: my daughter knows enough about them now to go on Mastermind. They were certainly better than The Shuttleworths - Europigeon (R4), a mildly engaging if overextended joke about a man who wrote a truly dreadful song and offered it to poor, hopeless Norway as their Eurovision entry. It was painful to hear the charming politeness of the girl in Oslo answering the phone to him, having to listen to his nonsense - and strange to think that, had it not been for Abba, he might have chosen to ridicule Sweden instead.
Two plays on Radio 4 unearthed skulduggery in earlier times. The Campden Wonder lingered gloatingly over a public hanging in the 1670s. The 'wonder' of the title was, presumably, to do with the fact that the victim of a real murder, for which three people were executed, turned up alive and well some years later, but I had stopped caring. The point being made seemed to be that among our barbrous forbears, hangings were carnival events. Every choke and guttering gurgle was recreated in loving stereo. It was a real turn-off.
Much better was Gabrielle and the Gargoyles which told the story of a woman stone-
mason who, working secretly at night, caricatured her companions while creating a frieze of vices for a nobleman's chantry. York Minster received a rare credit for the sound-effects as she plunged to her death from the embrace of the angel she carved at the end. A clever and thoughtful play, it lingered in the mind, reminding us how tough it has always been to be a woman whose skills are considered inappropriate to her sex. Also, rather like William Golding's novel, The Spire, it raised questions of how posterity can conceive of the inventiveness and ambition of medieval craftsmen, whose work continues to astonish us as we wonder about their lives.
Radio 3's Greek season included Angels and Gangsters, a fascinating inquiry into modern Greek poetry. John Theocharis, a poet himself, described the effect on Greece of 400 years of Ottoman occupation. It had to leap from the Middle Ages to the 19th century without 'the floodlit bridge of Romanticism'. How well it succeeded was clear when he visited five Athenian poets and listened to them read. He described their demotic Greek as a 'beautiful, expressive language with large, open-hearted vowels and assertive, crusty consonants', and so it is. Janet Suzman read translations of Maro Stassinopoulos and Olga Vorsti, in that coolly intelligent voice of hers. Kostas Ghimosoulis, a solicitor-poet, standing in his city flat where the traffic fumes meet the cloud of descending smog, gave an arresting definition of poetry. It is like filling a tooth, he said, you seal up with something solid an empty space taken up by pain.
In the best Classic Serial (R4) for ages, the fiery young D'Artagnan (Quel age as-tu? Dix-neuf ans? Sacre Bleu]) buckled on his swash to join The Three Musketeers for an exuberant gallop and a noisy clash of steel against the forces of evil, as represented by the wily Cardinal, the sinuous Milady and the man from Meung, his face the colour of tripe.
This superb adaptation brought out all the urbanity and wit of Dumas' original. There was the King trying to discipline his heroic daredevils - 'they don't call me Louis the Just for nothing'. All for one and one for all, they offered to die a thousand deaths for him. Languidly, Louis replied: 'Only if you must, I prefer you alive.' They promise to bring Thursday morning alive for another five weeks.
Finally, I can report that Sybil Ruscoe on Five (R5) has reached the bottom of the barrel in her search for snippets of information not covered elsewhere. But without her, we might never have known of the Earlybird Threadworm Awareness Campaign. A grateful nation salutes you, Sybil.
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