RADIO / Flying off the Handel: Robert Hanks on Classic FM

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The Independent Culture
WHILE Radio 3 is suffering a crisis of identity - are they trying to hold the cultural high ground or replicate some race-memory of the Light Programme? - Classic FM's launch yesterday showed the advantages of having a clear sense of what you're about. Classic FM is emphatically about 'The World's Most Beautiful Music' - a phrase its presenters repeated, like a calming mantra, or a mission statement, whenever they were momentarily nonplussed.

The worry is that the World's Most Beautiful Music isn't going to hold out for very long. It's Classic FM's avowed aim to stick to highlights - the wonderful moments rather than the awful half- hours - but this demands an unhealthy profligacy. A Sibelius symphony on Radio 3 stretches to 40 minutes; on Classic FM, everything discarded but the big tune in the last movement, it's done with in eight. Are there enough highlights to keep going without large- scale repetition?

The danger was accentuated yesterday when Susannah Simons played the 'March to the Scaffold' from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, introducing it with a little sketch of how he wrote it following his rejection by Harriet Smithson: the same introduction that Nick Bailey had used for the same piece four hours earlier.

You could take this as showing some continuity of presentational styles; but, in fact, there are large and pleasing contrasts between, say, the emphatic Bailey (who opened the station after the six o'clock news yesterday morning with the simple but powerful claim: 'I'm Nick Bailey - this is George Frederick Handel') and Henry Kelly's more elliptical approach. 'I'm telling you,' Kelly said at the start of his mid-morning show, voice stooping to a murmur, perhaps from embarrassment at the irrelevance of what was to come, 'the weather was so bad in most parts of the country this morning, you wouldn't have put a fox out of a henhouse.'

Going by Bailey's mildly tortuous attempt to link the 'Entry of the Emperor' from Kodaly's Hary Janos with Kelly's entry into the studio (there was some implication that Kelly was Hungarian), Kelly is clearly regarded with some awe within Classic FM: he is their secret weapon. Certainly he's a very fluent broadcaster, although at times you notice that his comments on the music are blandly uninformative, and some mild slips and pauses suggest he isn't as au fait with the repertoire as he might be.

You notice this with some of the other presenters, too. After Holst's St Paul's Suite - written when the composer was a master at St Paul's Girls School - Bailey quipped: 'Considering Holst made his name with the Planets suite, I wonder if he taught astronomy.' (The answer is no, by the way.) Petroc Trelawny, who ran the show between three and six in the afternoon (and is not, according to Bailey, a Cornish pastie), stumbled a little over the pronunciation of the word 'concerto', managing 'con-shear-toe' and 'con-shirty-oh' (the latter probably a stab at the Spanish 'con-the- air-toe').

In contrast with this uncertainty, Susannah Simons showed an aggressive confidence about the music - even the slogan, in her mouth, became more of a challenge than an advert. She followed some Liszt with the assertively rhetorical question: 'No idle boast, is it, when we say we play the World's Most Beautiful Music?'

She is the station's feistiest presenter by some way - The World's Most Beautiful Music, With Attitude. That pleasing edge seemed to fade when her guest, Jeremy Isaacs, ignored her first question to wish the station good luck and say how promising he thought it all sounded. You heard a startled and embarrassed murmur of thanks from Simons (What? Li'l ol' us?), and all the viciousness was gone. After some bland PR from Isaacs about the next season at the Royal Opera House, she regained her poise and chased him a little harder, but the questions lacked punch.

Overall, though, Classic FM certainly didn't live up to the Mr Kurtz scenario ('The horror] The horror]') that many had prophesied. In an interview in this paper a couple of weeks ago, Michael Bukht, the station's programme controller, said that he wouldn't be competing with Radio 3 so much as with Radios 1, 2 and 4; and, doubtful though that seemed at the time, he may have been right. Classic FM is unlikely to appeal to the classical buff who enjoys the kind of coherent, often demanding output that Radio 3 routinely offers. It will attract those people who like the friendly sequence programming - chat plus music - that is the norm on Radios 1 and 2, and on most local commercial stations, but who want an occasional change from pop. Even if you don't like it, you have to admit it's damnably clever.

Leading article, page 22

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