Music on radio and TV

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When the public has gone bananas and the critics have switched off their souls, who better to ask about David Helfgott than his teacher? Peter Feuchtwanger, a sympathetic and experienced musician who works regularly with Helfgott, provided the voice of musical reason on Sunday's South Bank Show (ITV) amid the clash of competing prejudices. As he broke off from advising his pupil to use notes that Beethoven actually wrote, Feuchtwanger eloquently summed it all up. Sometimes Helfgott plays with a fascinating individuality and makes a sound like the pianists of the Golden Age, as recorded early in the century. And sometimes he's just not there.

Quite a few old scores were settled by the simple method of asking the right people. Niel Immelman, a distinguished contemporary of Helfgott's at the Royal College of Music, remembers how his famous performance of the Rachmaninov Third Concerto lived up to the buzz that had been building up for weeks. So that's one thing the film Shine got right. But he certainly didn't crack up at the end - it was months before that happened.

As for the keyboard skills, they have their limits but they have worn better than you might expect. Feuchtwanger showed how an old-fashioned side to his technique leads to misunderstanding. On the other hand, the best playing in the programme came in a brief excerpt from Mozart's C minor concerto, recorded in Australia at the age of 14. Whatever did the damage started in family relationships and must have been compounded by the sink-or-swim attitude of the conservatoire training system and the expectations it creates.

If there's a moral in the whole story that hasn't been sufficiently spelt out, it's for the wider world of music teaching. Still we encourage a climate that turns musicians into operatives, instead of educating human beings. Teachers who do this are as bad as doctors who treat the symptoms instead of the patient. No wonder Helfgott's audiences are so responsive - they recognise the triumph of humanity against compound odds.

They do things differently in Africa, where people would say the real sad cases are those possessed by critical bigotry. Charles Easmon got a round of applause from last Friday's Radio 3 Hear and Now audience, of all things, for telling them they would have a better time there. That's the least he deserved for his all too brief contributions, moments of sanity in a muddle-headed discussion that had brought out the old prejudices about rhythm, rhythm, more rhythm, and the need for salvation by bringing in "contemporary elements".

Billed as being about Afrocentric traditions, the programme kept its feet planted firmly in Europe. Most of it was live performance that could tell its own story, though the repertoire could all have been comfortably accommodated in a Western context. Matteo Fargion's percussion piece wasn't even trying to be anything else, and got in because somebody thought it sounded African. All that drumming, no doubt. They certainly didn't let any traditional African musicians near the place to demonstrate what Easmon and his colleagues were trying to say. Instead, there was the most famous of Kevin Volans's 1980s pieces that used African materials, White Man Sleeps, presented without any acknowledgement that Volans later owned up to being entirely European in his creative aims.

What they did feature was some absorbing pieces by Tunde Jegede and Paul Gladstone-Reid, two conservatoire-trained musicians who are putting a lot of Africa into what they compose. Partly it's technique - harmonies developed from modal sources, and indeed some complex rhythmic construction, as Gladstone-Reid explained. Partly it's function and purpose, an awareness of music's profound social and philosophical role. Mostly for piano and cello, with just a few minutes of the kora, this music still had a personality and urgency that's usually trained out of composers in Britain.

In the weird atmosphere of a broadcast that was really about other people's failures to understand Africa, it was fresh air indeed. Tonight, Hear and Now moves on to women composers. It was trailed by a newspaper article last weekend that said music allows men to express their unmasculine side. Stand by for another feast of mishearing.

Good to hear Paul Patterson coming up as Radio 3 Composer of the Week. He's had to face his share of prejudice too after he committed the sin of changing direction from an avant-garde youth, like his mentor Penderecki. The week's broadcasts gave a good and fair sense of his musical range and vigour, and of his lucidity in knowing what he is doing. The result is that, in his 50th year, Patterson is a respected teacher, a tireless supporter of colleagues, particularly young ones, and a prolific creator with a full order-book. Even an African musician will respect that.