Scarpia: Tones of the dial: Robert Maycock puts his ear to the airwaves

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The Independent Culture
IT'S the surprises that make the day on Classic FM. Setting the tuner for anything that would improve the quality of life on the M40, I found a full- length piece by Toru Takemitsu. The announcer engagingly added that it was scored for 'triple woodwind, brass percussion, and strings'; ah, the perils of a lost comma. Still, it was there: music by a living composer in mid-afternoon on the station that is supposed to be about the world's most beautiful soundbites.

You will gather that a music journalist was committing the ultimate act of critical incorrectness: shunning Radio 3. But then, on the road, Classic FM has been this household's first choice for some while. Radio 3 still sounds patronising; Classic FM may be irredeemably middle-class, but it doesn't try to stop you joining.

The issue goes beyond style. Classic FM has got behind battles to save music education. Never mind the motives: where was Radio 3 on the most important musical campaign of the day? Musicians have also been discovering the late- night Contemporary Classics show on Sundays, which must already have opened more ears than the insider programming of Music in Our Time.

It has its limits. A few days ago I abandoned a smooth recording of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and stayed with something hideous and aggressive on Radio 3. This was partly because I didn't recognise it - a house-orchestra performance of Nielsen's Sixth Symphony - but also because the rough edges had become necessary; the other station was starting to feel like muzak. Dedicated listening rarely has any choice. If you want to focus your time on specific pieces or performances, you need the station with the exact schedules, the quirky repertoire, and the moments of perverse madness.

This Tuesday afternoon brought an extraordinary hour: the Nash Ensemble playing Robert Saxton, then Ronan Magill's piano recital in the Debut series, and an orchestral piece, Ash, by Michael Torke. For experienced listeners in search of serendipity, life could hardly be better: a virtual guarantee that we will experience love, hate, and discovery. How many listeners, though, switched off the Saxton and missed Magill's lively playing? Why was Ash, an engaging romp which built up rock riffs in the language of Handel and the scoring of Mendelssohn, buried away here when it cried out for Gorecki-style promotion? The repertoire is all right; the sequence is completely daft.

The evenings work better, especially in Prom time. Classic FM with an ancient recording of Il Trovatore in English and some variable discs of chamber music had nothing to match the Albert Hall atmosphere, especially with the treat of some unfamiliar Rachmaninov, the Spring cantata. Later, two fine, intense singers from Varanasi, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, were given the airtime to improvise without hurry. Stand back, though, and the questions return. If Radio 3 is now about occupying the cultural high ground, it hasn't got very far. For all the pleasures of the day, the ground it covered was that of an enlightened museum.

It's salutary then to nose around the non-specialist broadcasting channels and find them doing a less cosy high-ground job. BBC 2's Birthrights series has been strong on music this summer, with a full-length feature on the Victorian composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as well as contemporary subjects. On Channel 4, Rear Window followed Youssou N'Dour to Dakar and gave some intelligent documentary coverage to traditional Senegalese music and its modern evolution.

Tuesday's best bit of radio music broadcasting, meanwhile, turned up on Radio 2 in a brightly presented hour from the National Festival of Music for Youth. Players and teachers talked with enthusiasm for the intricacies of their craft, intercut with recorder groups, Andean music, Chinese ensembles, songs, jazz, orchestras. It was all passionate, serious, and bursting with life; yet for the Radio 3 or Classic FM mentality, mostly beyond the pale. Some British diseases never go away.