Building a Library, Radio 3<br/>Private Passions, Radio 3<br/>Breakfast, Radio 3

While some presenters try too hard, many celebrate classical music without a fuss. Just brace yourself for a glut of Chopin and Schumann

Michael Church
Sunday 10 January 2010 01:00

The turn of the year is the time our publicly funded concert programmers bunk off and leave the field clear for Raymond Gubbay to make his annual killing.

This is a good moment, therefore, to take the pulse of Britain's biggest provider of classical music, Radio 3 – aka (as it's been pantingly reminding us) "UK Radio Station of the Year". But no one should be fooled by that title, which is a routine trade plaudit, Radio 2 and Classic FM being past "winners". Just how wonderful is Radio 3?

It's certainly better structured than it was, with plenty of late-night variety and an imaginative literary input; however, since concert performances are usually recorded rather than live, the studio grip is tightening. Yet in other areas more control is needed. The current mania for on-the-hoof links, rather than scripted studio-based ones, demands an expertise most presenters don't have: Boxing Day's Lessons with Mozart, in which a posse of gawpers descended on his Vienna apartment and marched into a composing seminar, was a case in point. Underpinned by a well-crafted commentary, this could have been a fascinating programme, but the wide-eyed gasps – "We're now in Mozart's kitchen!" – became mere garnish on a digital dog's dinner.

Something of this quality pervaded last Saturday's cosily parochial Hear and Now report by Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Robert Worby on the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. But in Catherine Bott's Early Music excursion into the pre-Christian history of carols, we got a lovely whiff of old-fashioned Radio 3 professionalism. Among the magazine programmes, Music Matters can often be a plod, but World Routes bravely continues to fly the flag for what it loves.

Building a Library on Saturday morning remains one of the station's unsung glories: David Fanning's trawl through recordings of Tchaikovsky's The Seasons followed a format which hasn't changed in 30 years, and I hope never will. It's not about finding anything so banal as "the best", it's about savouring the infinite variety of ways in which one piece of music can be played. Last week's Private Passions with the theatre director Katie Mitchell was a model of its kind, with no self-promotion by interviewer or interviewee, and with the music – Mitchell's taste was exquisite – centre stage.

But since the bulk of Radio 3's output, with its trails within trails, is mediated by disc jockeys, it's to them we must now turn. There was something priestly about the old Radio 3 announcers – you could almost smell the incense, hear the rustle of their robes – but they kept things simple, telling us who wrote what and when, plus the occasional contextualising fact. The new DJs have been instructed to "be themselves" – grisly studio banter and all – which forces us to react as much to them as to the music. And while some – notably Fiona Talkington, Iain Burnside, Louise Fryer, and Andrew McGregor – have successfully found ways to avoid grating on the nerves, with Geoffrey Smith the unimprovable host of Jazz Record Requests, others are quite literally a turn-off. A little of Lucie Skeaping's forced jollity on The Early Music Show goes a very long way, and one can easily tire of Verity Sharp's halting portentousness on Late Junction. When she describes some sludgy guitar-growler as "sublime", one knows that what she really means is "sublimely cool", and that true sublimity doesn't come into it. I can only take Sean Rafferty's Irish gush on In Tune when in very thick traffic, and just half-listening.

It's tough on young Sara Mohr-Pietsch – striving to make the grade in the alternating three-hour Breakfast slot – that she should be matched against a master of the demanding art of being fully oneself while also doing full justice to the music. With a lifetime's eclectic listening in his knapsack, Rob Cowan is relaxed, genial and authoritative. His aim is simply to share his enthusiasms with the rest of us, and his seemingly extracurricular digressions always have point and purpose. He's one of a kind.

Radio 3's obsession with composer anniversaries persists, as do its polls to find the audience's favourite. The latest culminated on New Year's Eve in a breathtakingly brainless "debate" that sought to compare four incomparables, led by Petroc Trelawny in motormouth mode, with one of the four celebrity "advocates" blissfully untainted by any knowledge of music at all. This year it's Chopin and Schumann. Stand by for "Chopin the anti-Semite", and tear-drenched drama-docs about Robert and Clara, plus desperate rants about Clara-the-great-composer. We've had such things already, but that won't prevent Radio 3 from doing plenty more.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments