A slice of Pizetti worth waiting for

RADIO

In 1921, Maria Pizetti was suffering from typhus. Her anxious husband Ildebrando took refuge in his work. Perhaps hoping to defy the fates, he composed a setting of Shelley's "Lament", for tenor and chorus. But the magic failed: five days later his young wife was dead and Pizetti put the piece away, refusing ever to allow it to be played. Eventually, however, their son Bruno, now 87, decided that enough time had elapsed and gave permission for its first performance by Andrew Murgatroyd and the BBC Singers on Wednesday morning as part of This Week's Composer (R3). It was exquisite.

Pizetti's week, produced by David Gallagher, was a revelation. In his prime, his countrymen thought him Italy's greatest living composer - despite the fact that Puccini was still flourishing - but his following abroad has been small. This should certainly change after last week's airing of his glorious music. The man was capable of grand, sumptuous choral writing, as Monday's broadcast of his opera Debora e Jaele demonstrated, but, for me, that small, intensely personal "Lament", with its falling refrain "No more, no never more," went like a dagger to the heart.

Such grief has been the subject of R2's current Social Action Project, A Time to Heal. Every so often, this team takes a tricky subject and gives it space to breathe. Occasionally the result is frightful (nobody who heard it can remember the explicit first-hand accounts of the joys - and the mechanics - of geriatric sex without a shudder). Sometimes it is excellent, as it was this week. Regular programmes were interrupted by real people describing their experiences of bereavement, and on Wednesday, Debbie Thrower invited in two counsellors from the charity Cruse to take calls and offer advice.

If you switch this kind of thing on inadvertently, you might think it almost voyeur- istic to hear a timid mother whispering, on live radio, about her bewilderment at the death of her son. But, in context, it was enormously helpful. By dint of careful questions, Thrower elicited useful advice from the professionals: that instead of peering into an interminably bleak future, we should face up to grief a day, or even an hour at a time; that "normal" reactions often include furious rage and lacerating guilt, beyond any logically predictable pattern; that bereft friends need comfort for a very long time, not just for the first few weeks.

Inevitably, the question of the Nation's Grief came up. Here, too, sensible ideas emerged. It was suggested that we should not forget how emotional many people felt at the death of the Princess and that such strength of feeling should be harnessed and directed closer to home whenever private tragedy strikes. And Diana herself offered a fine example of someone who remembered to telephone and visit the bereaved regularly, never trivialising or forgetting their loss: this was, surely, when she was at her most touching and admirable.

The image I shall remember was domestic. It came from a caller, a brave widow who was determined that people should be allowed to follow their own instincts. She said that she herself was like a washing-machine, sometimes in a fast spin, sometimes chugging round and round, occasionally saturated and rinsed clean with tears.

As interviewer, Debbie Thrower treads a delicate tightrope between sympathy and objectivity. Such balance is a rare gift and not, alas, granted to David Mellor, who still keeps showing off on the airwaves. He was put in his place yesterday on Vintage Years (R3) when interviewing the formidable octogenarian soprano Astrid Varnay. She knew that the programme was about her, and she dealt politely but briskly with the Mellor ego.

Varnay's big break came on the night of 6 December 1941 when, aged only 23 and at very short notice, she stood in for Lotte Lehmann in what Mellor kept calling, with peculiar emphasis, "the Valkeerie". As it happened, that was also the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Varnay had been broadcast on coast-to-coast radio and the Japanese, like Mellor, were swept aside by her resounding Wagnerian voice: she was front-page news.

Studs Terkel has been interviewing people in Chicago for 50 years: five programmes celebrate him under the title Old Stubborn Guts (R4). It's a striking, if mystifying, name: Terkel seemed more gentle lamb than stubborn ox. Eleanor Bron met and loved him 35 years ago: after her warm introduction, our appetites whetted by promises of feasting on his taped archives, we were treated to dozens of eency-weency moments of chat between Terkel and almost everyone on the planet, from Buster Keaton to an Inner Mongolian camel driver. Like posh chocolates, the selection took the edge off hunger - delicious but not ultimately satisfying: you spoil us, Ambassador.

Finally, there was a nice moment on Midweek (R4) when Gavin Essler attempted to describe how bizarre and litigious American life can be. He spoke about a woman who'd been mugged, but unhurt, at Disneyland. Tenderly, the staff had cared for her, but it didn't help. She was distraught to discover that inside a Mickey Mouse costume dwelt a real person - and she's suing them for trauma.

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