Music on radio

Radio 3's Mining the Archive had a charming tale to tell us last week, and at the same time reminded us of a composer who, although rarely heard in this country in recent years, nevertheless caused something of a stir in the 1970s, provoking angry debate and even a sense of betrayal in some purists' hearts.

The famous Beaux Arts Trio was the subject of the programme's archival digging, and we heard, among other things, a superb performance of a Haydn Trio dating from 1975 and a 1981 Proms performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto that was outstanding for its vigour and stylistic elegance.

The engaging surprise was an excerpt from the Beaux Arts Trio's appearance on Desert Island Discs, in which two of the players chose their instruments for their luxury item, only to find that cellist Bernard Greenhouse was going to set up a trading post with his item - a collection of violin and piano strings. Hilarity engulfed Roy Plomley's studio.

It was the programme's final item that aroused memories of a creative volte-face which most of today's musicians would find it very hard to get worked up about.

The American George Rochberg can be seen to have relived or even initiated many of the major upheavals of 20th-century music, reaching a post-Schoenbergian dialectic of the utmost intricacy in the 1950s, only to undergo a crisis of conscience concerning his ego-bound hermeticism and complexity.

He moved towards a new tonality and formal simplicity, and was one of the first composers to attempt to break down the barriers between what was conceived of then as avant-gardism and conservatism.

Many thought he was selling his soul by approaching the language of Mahler, although he appears to us now as an early post-modernist pioneer rather than as a back-slider.

The work played by the Beaux Arts Trio dated from 1985 and showed Rochberg's oddly personal way with post-tonal language and structure: Shostakovich did not seem too far distant, as the score wended its elegant way through areas of uneasy serenity, and the piece was performed with the commitment and concentration that marked everything this supreme ensemble undertook.

Also during the week, Radio 3 was doing its determined best to keep abreast of recent new work with a relay from last year's Huddersfield Festival of arresting pieces by Tavener and Tan Dun, a recording of Mark-Anthony Turnage's powerful operatic double bill first heard a few weeks previously at this year's Aldeburgh Festival, and a live relay from the Cheltenham Festival of a new BBC commission - Vic Hoyland's A-Vixen-A. Spacious music, this, superbly conceived for orchestra, in which the composer draws fresh inspiration from his 1960s and 1970s forebears while extending a post- Mahlerian lyricism all his own.

In taking Beethoven's various approaches to composition as its theme, Composer of the Week did not always avoid the impression of trying to justify its programming of rather odd collections of pieces by placing them under intellectually OK umbrellas. Still, there were interesting perceptions in Stephanie Hughes's presentations, and Tuesday's look at experimentation did manage to focus, if in a rather subdued light, Beethoven's credo "Art demands of us that we do not stand still."

Anthony Payne

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