Classical Music: Music on Radio

Bayan Northcott
Thursday 13 June 1996 23:02

Come back Humphrey Searle? Time was when he seemed the very model of a modern Third Programme composer. Admittedly, that was all of 40 years ago. A pre-war pupil of Webern, he had shared with Elisabeth Lutyens the post-war brunt of Establishment disapproval for attempting to introduce diabolical 12-tonery into Britain. But he was also an expert on Liszt and, by 1950, the hyper-Romantic rhetoric with which he handled his atonal harmonies had begun to establish itself as an acceptable modernist compromise in an English context. While the Third Programme produced such typically 1950s conceptions as his melodrama The Shadow of Cain (1952) with its speakers declaiming Edith Sitwell against a jagged instrumental commentary, orchestras such as the City of Birmingham SO earnestly proceeded to commission a sequence of five turbulent symphonies. Meanwhile, Searle sat on umpteen new-music committees, advised Sadler's Wells on ballet, published a useful sequence of translations and textbooks - on Liszt, ballet, modern counterpoint - and taught at the Royal College of Music. Widely cultivated - he had read classics and philosophy at Oxford and assisted Trevor-Roper in researching The Last Days of Hitler - he also came over, on the only occasion I chanced to meet him, as a modest and likeable man.

What evidently side-swiped his busy career - as those of his contemporaries Peter Racine Fricker and Iain Hamilton - was the much-hyped rise of the next generation of Goehr, Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle, Williamson, Bennett and Maw in the early 1960s. When Searle's crowning opus, the opera Hamlet, reached performance in 1968-69, it was equivocally received and, since his death in 1982, he has been little performed. High time, then, for a reassessment - though whether simply pumping out three symphonies in succession, as Radio 3 did last Tuesday evening, is likely to have revived his reputation, might be doubted. Nos 2 and 3, dating from 1957 and 1959 respectively, sounded, even in punchy readings by the BBC Scottish SO under Alun Francis, pretty much like cuts off the same roll: heavily descending serial themes over pedal-points, sinister fanfares on stabbing minor seconds and violent climaxes sounding, after all this time, not a little like the Hammer Horror film scores of the period (though, of course, many of those were composed by Lutyens). The one-movement Fifth Symphony (1964), in memory of Webern, proved more diaphanous in texture and substance. But any one of these symphonies alone might have made more impact programmed with the more lyrical side of Searle - as in the Poem for 22 strings (1950) or the Aubade for horn and strings (1955), which still haunt this pair of ears - or, again, with the wit of his Edward Lear setting The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (1951).

The programme was not helped by the blandness with which Geoffrey Baskerville read his introductory script - as if introducing Searle to schoolchildren. But at least it was modestly informative, which is more than one can always expect from what is currently among Radio 3's most limply presented slots, Hear and Now.

Granted, an up-to-the-minute digest of new music may sometimes have to change its content after Radio Times has gone to print. Last Friday's session from 10pm to midnight was supposed to begin with a new recording of Martin Butler's 1992 Proms commission O Rio, a brilliant, dance-like piece of a Copland-esque ebullience too rare in British music, followed by Richard Barrett's far darker, more complex three-movement Vanity for orchestra. In the event, the programme started with Vanity followed by a half-hour improvisation by Barrett himself from the recent LCM Festival of Experimental Music. Then there was a discussion about IRCAM, another interminable improvisation by the Australian quintet Polwechsel, and only towards 11.45pm did O Rio heave into earshot.

Yet at no point did the young presenter Sarah Walker - presumably chosen to appeal to the kind of hardline yoof that reads The Wire - explain the change of order or tell us at what time we might now expect to hear the promised items. This has happened so often recently on Hear and Now that one might be tempted to denounce it as a plain discourtesy to listeners but for the suspicion that the producers must have decided that the only way to keep people listening at all is to keep them guessing.

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