RADIO: Get Pachelbel out of the canon - now!

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SOMEONE gave us a box of chocolate- covered marshmallows this Christmas. Insubstantial and rather too sweet but undemanding and easy to swallow, they were like the stuff Richard Baker used to play when he introduced - week after year after decade - a selection of tunes called These You Have Loved. (This was before he hightailed off to Classic FM to do, essentially, more of the same). To his credit, he remarked at the time that it should have been named Some of These You Might Quite Like, but the real title lodged somewhere in the national psyche. This week on Music Machine (R3), Verity Sharp invited professional musicians to air their pet hates in These You Have Loathed.

There's pleasure in loathing. It used to be a good reason for listening to The Archers, when every character was either seriously unpleasant or certifiably boring. Loathing them did no harm to anyone and stopped you kicking the dog. (Nowadays, worryingly, I find myself quite liking most of them and even feeling sorry, this week, for poor, stupid, awful John. But I digress ...) These musicians, who must spend interminable hours politely enduring their colleagues' performances, took to hatred as those bony loonies take to the North Sea every New Year's Day: they revelled in it.

Tasmin Little hates Pachelbel's Canon - "so boring, so incredibly dull" (hear hear); John Harle detests the romantic fascism of Wagner and the competitive macho aggression of certain jazz bands (they're just comparing willies, he says); Iain Burnside would rather be dropped into a vat of boiling oil than be forced to listen to Strauss waltzes, and finds the sound of a Hawaiian guitar reminiscent of the vomiting process - but Rolf Hind, ah Rolf was the most thorough and cheerful loather of them all. His list includes all musicals; musicians who try to be funny (and probably have keyboards printed on their duvets); the goat-voiced Bob Dylan; the cowpat school of English pastoral - especially puny, pathetic Delius - and most thunderingly, the intolerably vulgar Verdi. It was as invigorating listening to him splashing in the salty surf of contempt as it clearly was to do the splashing.

These irreverent afternoons followed the newly-scheduled, safe and proper R3 mornings, when sturdy Peter Hobday played reliable Masterworks, followed by that clever Joan Bakewell allowing Joan Sutherland to show off as Artist of the Week (quite a lot of vulgar Verdi there) and - lo - Richard Baker returned to the BBC telling Sound Stories as if narrating a bad translation of Peter and the Wolf. Perhaps he's just spent too long reading dreadful scripts (and these aren't great) but he said things like "... the pagan stamping as a young virgin danced herself to death" as if ordering a cheese omelette. Though I suppose it might have been worse if he'd read that bit with enthusiasm.

The idea of Sound Stories is good but it should risk a tighter focus, not feel the need to include marshmallows in everything. This first week has, in theory, been concerned with solemn music played in great religious buildings. The two I heard were about Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame. Some of the music was predictable, like Walton's dreadful, constipated march for the coronation of George VI, "Crown Imperial" (this loathing thing is catching). Some was lovely, like Purcell's exquisite threnody on the death of the very popular Queen Mary, who died, too young, of smallpox. It was written for two female voices, intertwined on the very edge of discord, where grief belongs. Happily, there was no Sir Elton: R3 isn't yet that populist.

The Paris programme produced stories of the tragic life of the organist Louis Vierne - but, lazily, no mention of the name of the current Notre Dame organist, who is clearly a phenomenally exciting performer. And, given the vast repertoire offered by the cathedral, I was mystified when a Josephine Baker song was included - unless she just happens to have a fashionable surname.

Four new series last Sunday afternoon gave R3's huge Sounding the Century project a booster jab. 100 Great Singers began with Lord Harewood introducing his protegee and friend Maria Callas, whose singing makes Dame Joan sound merely efficient. Then came Centurions, which offers short discussions of the 100 greatest artworks of the century, thus courting the controversy which buzzes around every such list. The first contender was Kafka's "Metamorphosis". If you'd never read it, you'd know enough afterwards to bluff convincingly: if you already admired it, you'd be reminded of - or alerted to - its disturbing, droll, lingering resonance. Let's hope the rest of the anthology reaches this standard.

Next came The Year 1900, whose music was competently introduced by Natalie Wheen, and finally the Sunday Feature: Settling the Score. This is the most ambitious series, 20 monthly documentaries putting music into its aesthetic, economic and social context. The excellent first edition covered 1900-1914, when Neville Cardus was swooning to the kitsch of The Merry Widow; Franz Liszt was on tour, playing in 50 English towns; there was a piano in every pub, tea-shop and dance-hall in the country and amateur singers in war-paint and wampum were everywhere taking part in huge performances of Hiawatha. I loved it.

Now, to other things. On R2, Donald Sinden introduced the first episode of The Cruel Sea, or, as he calls it, with hilarious portentousness, "The Crrewell Seee": a swashbuckling, white-knuckled dramatisation of Monserrat's famous novel. The sound-effects are tremendous, which is lucky when you learn that Jonathan Ruffle, the producer, crossed the North Atlantic and threw men into a pond specifically to record authentic gales and splashes. Inland, David Pownall's fine play Making Love, War and Peace (R4) showed the Tolstoys at home - wrangling, copulating noisily, and cooperatively writing the great novel. Gerard Murphy (Andrei in the R4 serial) was good as Leo, but Tracy Ann Oberman was quite outstanding as his teenage wife, the splendid, resourceful, permanently pregnant Sofya.

Finally, as a tribute to Frank Muir, R4 repeated one of his Frank Muir goes into ... series. Who could have decided to celebrate radio's most inventive scriptwriter and the editor of a vast anthology of comic prose with a programme scripted and selected by someone else? Any edition of My Word would have been better. Come along, Light Entertainment, try harder. While we still have the other half of the team to introduce it, give us a whole season of Muir-and-Norden masterpieces - and you still won't have done them justice.

Comments