Careless talk costs listeners

RADIO

IF YOU lie in the grass in the Vienna woods in early summer, listening carefully, the very air seems to tremble: it is that sensation that Johann Strauss wanted to evoke on the violins as his most famous waltz begins - or so Erich Kleiber told the Berlin Philharmonic when they recorded the "Blue Danube" in 1931. We listened very carefully and he was right: they did it, shimmeringly. Learning things like that, related on Tuesday by Paul Gambaccini in his second Morning Collection (R3), focuses attention on something familiar, and an old war-horse becomes a lively colt.

It is less fun to learn that when Gambaccini was born in 1949 the hit song was "Cruisin' Down the River", but, alas, you don't get one without the other. We had been prepared for his idiosyncratic style by his trailer on R4. He was suffering from first-morning nerves, he wheedled, and it would be really reassuring if we could be there with him. Re-tuning to catch this tremulous chameleon's debut in his new prime spot, we were plunged straight into his autobiography. He really will have to tone down that ego. The R3 faithful are different from the Classic FM floozies: the music must always come first, uncluttered by advertisements, traffic information and intrusive personality. Even the news sounds less alarming here than elsewhere, in the calm and capable style of the regular presenters.

Yet Gambaccini is in a breathless, portentous hurry, filling every second with anecdote, not allowing a moment for the last notes to drift decently away: to be positive, though, he played long stretches of lovely music, in interesting versions, and it's early days yet. If he can relax and give us all some breathing space, he just might be the man to boost the ratings.

If you can't be bothered to wait for this to happen, try the World Service. Their music department has good ideas, like The Musician's Musician, a series in which a star performer remembers his or her mentor. An astonishingly boyish-sounding Yehudi Menuhin was this week talking about George Enescu, who gave him free violin lessons when he was 12 in 1928. Generous, modest and incredibly talented, Enescu was, said Menuhin, "the noblest man I ever met. I never knew anyone who carried so much music in his mind immediately available and memorised." When he composed, he marked every tiny rhythmical and tonal reflection; he could make an old upright piano sound like a full orchestra; when he played the violin he appeared to improvise the moulding of each phrase so that it sounded new-minted, and his control of vibrato was unparalleled.

To hear a great genius like Menuhin expressing such homage was rather wonderful. The programme ended with a sublime 1932 recording of the two of them playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto, yoked together in perfect harmony, both controlling their vibrato like nobody's business.

Another kind of homage was paid to a previously unknown woman in Who Sings the Hero? (R4). She was a heroine, a brave young widow called Diana Jarman, who survived, with two seamen, for five weeks in an open boat after their old steamer was torpedoed in 1941. At first, this true story was told with comic-strip exaggeration - the U-boat commander slipping easily between camp German and plangent Welsh - but by the end the tragic ironies of subsequent events and the sheer power of the leading actors made you weep; Becky Hindley as Diana and David Bannerman as the sailor who loved her were superb.

Our history is overburdened with conflict. This Sceptr'd Isle (R4) has reached the Wars of the Roses, but there's no time for individual heroics. Grave warnings about the unreliability of geography preceded an impossibly complicated episode in which York was in Ireland and Warwick stood in Northampton, while Margaret, with Henry in her hands, personally conducted a siege. Pinning a red rose to my lapel, I tried to follow as Anna Massey soldiered grittily on through all this but, I'm sorry to say, she lost me somewhere on the bloodstained snow at the Battle of Towton.

Sue Gaisford interviews Nicholas Kenyon, Review, page 25.

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