Radio: On The Air

The Week on Radio Reviewed by Bayan Northcott
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The Independent Culture
SO FAREWELL, then, Record Review - venerable Radio 3 companion to countless Saturday mornings. "People don't want to hear about a lot of crackly old vinyl," Hilary Boulding, Radio 3 Commissioning Editor, Music (Policy), has allegedly remarked. Accordingly, the programme's three regular presenters, Richard Osborne, Anthony Burton and Jonathan Swain, with their vastly varied range of expertise, have been sacked; the surveys of archive re-issues and, doubtless, the earnest discussions of contemporary music releases, largely abandoned. Instead, we have CD Review, fronted by the single, bland persona of Andrew McGregor, fresh from On Air.

Admittedly one tried and trusted feature remains: Building a Library - though demoted from the programme's opening 40 minutes to a slot two thirds through and, in last Saturday's first edition, reduced to half an hour. Yet what exemplary use the inimitable Geoffrey Smith of Jazz Record Requests made of the time in his survey of nine current recordings of Gershwin's An American in Paris. The work's origins and structure were deftly outlined and precise insights were offered into its pacing and style. Excitement can be generated without bombast, Smith argued, and too many conductors fail to realise that the dance tune of Gershwin's final section is a twenties Charleston, not a thirties Big Band number - and should be played with a clipped rag-time based elegance.

But as for the rest... Where Record Review devoted up to a third of its three-hour format to playing complete pieces from the discs under discussion, the new programme proposes to give over some 40 minutes to a single Disc of the Week - last Saturday the re-issue of Carlos Kleiber's justly famous but, by now, pretty familiar recording of Beethoven's Seventh. And before that - as if three and a half hours of Joan Bakewell's Artist of the Week, Sean Rafferty's daily In Tune interviews and now a new Saturday afternoon series of Artists' Question Time, were not enough - we have yet another artist interview slot. Granted, that gifted young tenor Ian Bostridge is more articulate than most, and had some interesting things to say on escaping the shadow of Peter Pears. But in general, one suspects this plethora of artists' chat is simply cheaper to put on than more focused features.

Yet the real limitation of CD Review looks like being its paucity of actual reviews. McGregor himself offered a brief opening selection of recent releases plus a mid-point Bargain Basement trawl of cheaper discs with such original observations as "Shostakovich really wearing his heart on his sleeve" and "sounds as though it should hold its own." And after Geoffrey Smith's Gershwin McGregor finished with some vaguely jazz-related releases.

The most ominous item, however, was the one so-called Special Interest review: last Saturday, Lucy Skeaping on Baroque Concertos. For it was difficult to believe that a musician as informed as Ms Skeaping could write such a script, or that producers as competent as Clive Portbury and Susan Kenyon should consent to record it, without the heaviest pressure from above to spoonfeed "accessibility" like pap. "There's an awful lot of talk these days about authenticity," she brightly began, as if we had all been born yesterday. Later she suggested that JS Bach would have found it as difficult to understand the music of his sons, as "Hip Hop to those of us raised on Frank Sinatra". But the ultimate was her kindergarten- coy praise of a Vivaldi release: "You'd find it hard to have on as background music - but then you wouldn't do that, would you!" Oh, puke.