Classical: Two minutes of silence ... and what else?

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Last Tuesday was Armistice Day. Robert Maycock compares the rival responses to the occasion of Classic FM and BBC Radio 3

There's the station that gives you what you want, and the one that thinks it knows what you ought to want. So runs the myth. Let's see how it stood up on the evening of Tuesday 11 November.

Classic FM, in keeping with the new national will for grand gestures of public solemnity, devoted its main event of Armistice Day to English music connected with harrowing wartime experiences. Radio 3 left the fields of Flanders to Radio 2 and got on with business as usual: a history of the slave trade, an unflagged but interesting musical spin towards Ireland and, to quote Radio Times in one of its immortal hours, "the passion for fairies that gripped artists, writers and composers from the mid-19th century to the outbreak of the First World War".

That was Night Waves on the Royal Academy's new show of Victorian paintings, but the network has seized on this particular subject matter with a passion all its own. Those fairies have been popping up everywhere. In Tune is playing fairy music all week, and getting people in to talk about these elusive beings. Tuesday brought Simon Callow to declare resonantly that he had never had a personal encounter with one. Earlier, Sean Rafferty had worked hard to set a spiritual tone for the programme's discussion of Hildegard of Bingen, but was waxing so eloquent by the end that I'm sure I heard him refer to "St Thomas Beecham" as he introduced the next item. If what Radio 3 thought you needed was a good giggle, it certainly hit the target through drivetime.

If you actually wanted to latch on to the solemn and spiritual, you would probably have been driven off to the concert of Arnold, Butterworth and Bliss over on Classic FM. I have to declare an interest, with a grandfather buried in one of the seas of graves near Ypres, because nothing has ever persuded me to listen to Sir Arthur Bliss's Morning Heroes before. It came as a shock to discover that this work - written in memory of the composer's brother and the other dead of the First World War, and incorporating poetic texts from the Iliad, Walt Whitman, Li-Tai-Po, Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols - contains one of the most extended bouts of flat-out choral belting in the entire repertoire. Over the top is the mot juste. The brass and drums thump out their tattoos in the bluff mid-century manner that still lives on in the music of George Lloyd. Subtle it isn't, but you certainly know the Brits are coming. No wonder those artists stopped going on about fairies.

The sense that it must be extremely exhilarating to sing, which at first disturbs, seems on reflection to be a suitable mood, so long as it is one among several - as is the case when the work winds down to its touching close. A nice radio irony saw to it that the performance we heard - one of rousing and sustained intensity, recorded by the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under the late Sir Charles Groves - included a scarcely recognisable Richard Baker bellowing out the poetry. At the end, the present- day Baker gave the announcements, stoically excluding the narrator's name: was this a pioneering example of period style applied to presentation?

All the same, for anybody who can't take this jingoistic stuff (including me, most days), the BBC itself had a much better option with its competing live performance from Birmingham by the Vanbrugh Quartet. Long resident in Cork for the Irish national broadcasting station, the quartet has made the most of its opportunity to mature in secure working conditions and brought fine performances of Schubert and Haydn. The local element was Ian Wilson's Beyond the Far Country, which began like a traditional Radio 3 pill amid the sugar. The presenter's script talked about some "strange slides" which were supposed to evoke Islam - now, there is a real anachronism - though they weren't half as strange as the meandering tuneless lyricism that took over after the punchy opening chords. But the piece grew in character, ending with subdued, hypnotic rotations and rockings. Spiritual meaning was intended, and achieved.

Who got what they wanted? Classic FM, responsive to the occasion, ended up with music that many sensitive listeners find repellent. Radio 3 had a more widely appealing musical content but must have sent non-fairy fanciers running for cover. All in all, a good night for the listener's art of well-timed channel-hopping.

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