Classical music: So, what's the story so far?

Music on Radio 3

This week BBC Radio 3 unleashed its new `user-friendly' morning line-up. Bayan Northcott listened in.

Out of the colour supplements they scintillate, from the box they blare: tricksy adverts proclaiming "More than just the famous bits... For life beyond the lollipops, tune in to BBC Radio 3".

Why all the excitement? It seems from recent research that, of the modest proportion of the population which even realises that Radio 3 is "Britain's premier classical music station", most seek a background to daily life, feel intimidated by technical terms and are constantly complaining, in the words of no less a figure than Matthew Bannister, the BBC's Head of Radio, "that it is difficult for them to know where to find the programmes that they want". And apparently the thirtysomething age group remains particularly thin in the listening figures. The word has gone out, therefore, that "branding" must be improved, weekly schedules made more "consistent", and that programmes should convey a strong "story". So what has been on offer these last few weekday mornings for the mildly curious thirtysomething switching on for a bit at the computer or the kitchen sink?

In accordance with an apparent aim to raise listeners by subliminal degrees to higher things, Morning Collection at 9.00am has now been extended to 90 minutes and retitled Masterworks, with Peter Hobday gently insinuating the basic classics, starting with the Beethoven symphonies - although it was nice on Monday also to hear so striking a rarity as Cherubini's In Paradisum. Then at 10.30 each weekday, we now have 30 minutes of Artist of the Week presented by Joan Bakewell; this week in amiable conversation with Dame Joan Sutherland on her career, her family life and whatnot, interspersed with tracks from La Sonnambula, Turandot and Noel Coward. Next week it will be Sir Neville Marriner, and so on doubtless through the entire gramophone catalogue of "world-class" artists - though the occasional choice of the interesting lesser-known might better convince one that this is not really Radio 2 material. Finally we have the new hour-long Sound Stories presented by Richard Baker, replacing that patchy miscellany Musical Encounters with a themed series offering "the stories behind the music".

Since this is evidently intended as a long-running "entry point" programme to capture listeners from Artist of the Week and deliver them to the more demanding Composer of the Week at midday, it would be unfair to judge it after only a few instalments, but the omens seem mixed. True, like Masterworks, the presentation sounds scripted and, of course, Hobday and Baker enunciate with a poise one would like to think might bring a blush to the ad-libbing cheek of the current presenter of In Tune. Again, the themes are unexceptionable: this week, religious establishments at various periods, such as St Thomas's, Leipzig, in Bach's time, Westminster Abbey after the Restoration, and so on; next week, music of the royal courts. Yet a sense of miscellaneousness remains: Tuesday's programme on Westminster Abbey, ostensibly concerned with the music of Locke, Blow and Purcell, managed to drag in a blast of Walton and - you've guessed it - that John Tavener drone of Diana's funeral fame.

Moreover, like Hobday and Bakewell, Baker seems to be under some injunction to talk around the music, but never about it; indeed, half the time he fails even to inform us of the performers of the recordings he has just played - a discourtesy to listeners who might be struck enough to wish to follow them up. But the real puzzle is the programme's surely inadvertent but discernible tone of avuncular condescension, redolent, to this pair of ears, of nothing so much as 1950s schools broadcasting.

Nobody who really cares about Radio 3 could wish its attempts at self-improvement to fail. I just wish that I, for one, could feel more confident that the network's present programme-planners really know what they are doing.

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