Television Review

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The Independent Culture
BACK IN April, when Ann-Sophie Mutter was doing her Beethoven cycle on BBC2, I complained about the general inadequacy of television's coverage of classical music. But I suggested that this was inherent in the medium and something we'd have to learn to live with. However, Masterworks: Six Pieces of Britain (Sat BBC2) has proved a useful little reminder of critical fallibility. Over the last five weeks, Michael Berkeley has demonstrated that TV can be more than radio's gimmicky cousin: it can actually illuminate music in ways that radio can't.

So far Berkeley has had it easy, introducing performances of fundamentally tonal pieces - Elgar's Cello Concerto, Britten's Serenade. This week, he had a far harder challenge: persuading the audience to sit through Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Triumph of Time, a 1972 orchestral work that is nerve-rackingly spiky by anybody's standards.

As an introduction to Birt-wistle, the programme was virtually flawless. The camera, not content simply to roam around the rehearsal room or offer pretty tableaux, came up with some imaginative visual evocations of the music's under- lying programme. While an oboe wound plaintively through a shimmering soundscape of percussion, we saw films of plants bursting into life, cells multiplying under a microscope - the cliches of time-lapse photography given new energy by sheer appropriateness.

It helped that Birtwistle is, in person at any rate, blunt and approachable, and that there was a visual prop in the shape of the Pieter Bruegel etching from which he took his title - a surreal procession of death, time-pieces and the seasons.

For all this, I suspect that many people will have sympathised with the cor anglais player who said that while he could imagine this would be very exciting from the dress circle, "Sitting this close... the loud bits, the triple fortes, are going to be pretty excruciating". But however alienated and shaken by the noise, even the most sceptical viewer would have had to abandon the notion that modern music is a fad or a fraud perpetrated on the gullible. That's a qualified triumph, at least.

It's a short hop from here to The Cowboy and the Eclipse (Sun C4), since both Birtwistle and the American light-artist James Turrell are inspired by ancient landscapes and prim-ordial themes - in Turrell's case, the rocks and sky of his native California and Arizona. His most celebrated works are "skyspaces", chambers with open roofs that frame the firmament, creating an illusion of tangible space and light.

This documentary followed his latest project, a skyspace on a Cornish hillside for viewing Wednesday's eclipse. As with the Birtwistle, you went away with a sense of Turrell's seriousness and some hints of the power of his works. But the programme was unwilling to linger on the still or empty image. We were told that while people last no more than two or three seconds in front of pictures at an exhibition, they will spend half an hour gazing into the spaces Turrell has framed. But here the cameras flitted around restlessly, worried that the viewer might wander off. It seemed a slightly shabby way to treat eternity.

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