Classical: The long, the slow, the smooth and the boring

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Indy Lifestyle Online
They're slowing down Classic FM. Over on Radio 3 the least hint of change causes an outcry, but the other side seems to have got away unnoticed with something more drastic. At seven every evening the tempo of the station drops, and Smooth Classics opens its stately progress across the prime listening time of the day.

Andante follows adagio in a seamless line through the centuries. If you're lucky you can catch a moderato, but that is as upbeat as it gets. It's presented as a nightly wind-down in a stressed world, a musical Radox bath with double gin and tonic. You visualise hard-pressed middle managers across the nation sighing as they push the rubber duck around to the melodies of Max Bruch. At least that's what the tone of the advertising says.

On the receiving end the experience can be different. Driving through Bexhill on Sea last Sunday with the sequence in full flow I nearly dropped off to sleep. My partner now calls this programme "Music for passing away to".

It is easy to mock, though the effect on Classic FM's repertoire is on the contrary stimulating. The standards barely have enough slow movements to sustain a 14-hour week, and all sorts of rarities have been turning up because the pace is right.

The same goes for Continuous Classics in the afternoons. Few slots are so mistitled. The music is broken up by announcements telling you how continuous it is, by little bursts of other pieces, and by Jamie Crick jumping in at the end of stirring items with the sensitivity of a promenader trying to yell Bravo! before the others. But there is a subversive streak: the pieces are longer. Last week brought a complete movement by Bruckner. No repeats, and it was a scherzo, but then Bruckner's scherzos are longer than some people's symphonies.

Meanwhile the full-length works played early afternoon and mid-evening continue to stretch attention spans. Nowadays the 2pm concerto is often quite obscure - Schubert's "Wanderer Fantasy" orchestrated by Liszt, for instance - and on Sunday the weekly complete opera was Beatrice di Tenda, by Bellini.

This was not a total joy. It has an overture that was either stitched up at the last minute or meant to be played before the audience arrived, and it continues with music that makes the typical Top 40 number sound like an intellectual monument.

If this stuff didn't have snob value it would never be taken seriously, even as a star vehicle. Luciano Pavarotti always sounds wholehearted, but Joan Sutherland was distinctly wobbly and the LSO under Richard Bonynge's direction played as if it had retired to Bexhill.

Still, the station is evolving. The pattern in these more focused areas of the schedule echoes one of Radio 3's warhorses, Composer of the Week. Once a breeze through the old favourites, it has turned sometimes into a cue for fresh perspectives - as with Liszt, currently the morning choice, seen from the angle of his European travels - and sometimes into a chance to open closed doors. Did music by Howard Hanson (evenings this week) ever before take up such a concentrated burst of airtime?

The broadcasts made a valuable corrective. Just as Bellini has benefited unfairly from the social clout of his chosen genre, so Hanson has had to suffer for being a successful 20th-century exponent of traditional tonality. On the one hand his is clearly European music with an American accent, rather than the authentic melting-pot product of a Gershwin or a Bernstein. On the other, it never posed the fashionable difficulties of avant-garde European-Americans like Elliott Carter.

Sixteen years after he died, his stance looks like a strength. That's because he flourished so well in the old forms, not just because he used them. Suites, serenades, impromptus, and above all symphonies: any quick learner could do a pastiche, but Hanson invented vital and memorable music that seemed to grow of its own accord into these shapes. His Romantic Symphony, broadcast on Wednesday, has the stamp of originality all over it, without for a moment trying to be novel. On one level it is an ingenious exploitation of striking themes; on another, it gives the impression of occurring like a natural force and its consequences - the essence of creative energy. And all in the length of a Bruckner scherzo.

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