RADIO / A force to be reckoned with

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The Independent Culture
I MUST have sat there for three hours. The music was loud, stormy and irresolute. On the stage several strong, experienced - frankly, heavy - singers had taken up immovable poses. Feet firmly apart they faced front and let rip. Lulled into slumber by the lack of any noticeable narrative progression, I dropped off for half an hour. Nothing had changed when I woke, but to my horror, my watch declared that it was only 7.45. Four hours to go.

Wagner, as Rossini noted, has some lovely moments, but some frightful quarters of an hour. That first experience of Tristan and Isolde was daunting, but recently things have been looking up. Deep in the centre of rural France, we picked up the French station Radio Classique. Less populist than its English counterpart, the station has been playing a Wagner opera every night and, as the huge waves of music crashed over the nodding sunflowers of Aquitaine, it began to seem rather wonderful.

Back home, or rather in the wider world, Meridian confirmed the impression. This excellent weekly arts series on the World Service is nearly always worth searching out. This week a half- hour documentary called Tristan and Isolde completely reversed my feelings about the opera. That endless hurricane of music was shown to be deliberately tormented and unresolved, representing the palpably physical yearning of the lovers who can find no peace in this world until the very bitter end. Anne Evans described the intense ecstasy of singing the last enormous aria, when Isolde transcends all earthly passions and sinks into the rapturous swell and the turbulent wave of love and death. Getting a grip on herself, she added: 'Then she usually sinks to her knees and falls vaguely in the direction of Tristan.' Very wise.

For music with 'guts and drive and body odour', forget Wagner and turn to America. That was the message of

Mr McGlinn's New Beginnings (R2) on Tuesday. John McGlinn is an extraordinary chap. His mission is to recreate the early musicals in precisely the way they were first performed. It doesn't seem much of a mission, put like that. Then he described finding the original manuscript of Showboat in a New Jersey warehouse as a Holy Grail experience akin to discovering the arms of the Venus de Milo. At this point it became clear that his carousel has slipped into the South Pacific. Such manic enthusiasm is always endearing, though; and here Chris Stuart asked precisely the right questions. Well, what is the difference between the first production and current revivals? Will an audience actually notice? The answer to that last one is probably not, but who cares. Mr McGlinn will be in his own little blue heaven.

When Barry Wordsworth talked about 'Bach with balls', one listener thought for a moment of old J S's 20 children, but music tends to provoke us all to extravagant metaphors. In this case, he was referring to Sir Adrian Boult's recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, a 'full-blooded' performance that Wordsworth prefers to all the elegantly authentic versions that prevail these days. In The Tingle Factor (R4), the man who is to conduct the last night of the Proms chose the music that made him tingle. 'Tingle' begins to sound like a very silly word when it's repeated; in this case, one of the pieces that provoked, shall we say, a thrill came from West Side Story. Jeremy Nicholas proved unable to pronounce the name of the heroine. Here, Maria, 'the most beautiful sound I ever heard', was a black police van.

The most historic broadcasting moment came during Radio 3's British Poets series. In the last year of his life, 1889, Robert Browning was persuaded to recite How They Brought the Good News on to a primitive record. Apparently in the teeth of a howling storm, he set off, interrupting himself with the words 'Terribly sorry, can't remember me own verses.' Poor old boy. Never mind, we can.