15 June 2017: On This Day
- The two previous BBC Music Days have seemed devoid of much interest for certain sections of the music-loving public, whereas others - the rest of The World - had their fill. This year’s celebrations seemed overall more restrained than in the past, more thoughtful. BBC Four even broadcast Round 3 of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in prime time - 19.30 until 21.00 - instead of Top of the Pops.
At any rate the general approach served Radio 3 rather better. In the past it has trudged dutifully along Hadrian's Wall, swung from the iconic bridges around the country and even shared a simulcast of Radio 2's evening concert (Lulu, Deacon Blue, bhangra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), all in obedience to the call of Music Day. Was there a 'theme' this year, other than the boldly declared Power of Music? (oh, yes, it was Blue Plaque year, wasn’t it: Kathleen Ferrier, Sir Neville Marriner, Constance Shacklock and, to show they don’t have to be posthumous - Alfie Boe - were among the 45 plaqued musicians).
This year The Day passed (relatively) quietly on Radio 3, apart from the busy reminders (about 30 times on Breakfast that this was The Day of the Power of Music and Blue Plaques. The evening concert was a Radio 3 concert: the National Orchestra of Wales with Thomas Søndergård playing Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and not a rock band in earshot.
Radio 3’s special contribution was interesting: six short dramatic monologues, some touching, some funny, commissioned from what might be called the New Generation Writers. Each was built round a key moment or stage in the speaker's present life and a specific piece of music which was in some way life-changing.
UnRaveling by Jan Carson focused on Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto. A poetic, metre-based piece in which Liam Neeson beautifully conveyed the mind of a concert pianist wrestling with dementia, fumbling physically and mentally to play the music which had gained his wife's love years ago; and dimly managing to grasp that for her, even now, he is the man of music she fell in love with. Concept, writing and performance came together for a moving interlude.
A contrasting, comic piece was The Boxer's Epiphany by Salim Allybokus. Kayvan Novak was the boxer, unbeaten and in his final fight before retiring from the ring. Determined to be a winner to the end, he is also a new dad with a 2-day-old son, and as the tinkling sound of Brahms's Wiegenlied keeps breaking in as a reminder, he’s feelin’ the lurve for his son, for his mum, for his wife, yes, even for the near defeated challenger, barely staggering to his feet the blood trickling down his battered face. And momentarily, well… the twist is in the punchline.
The others were varied: in Kilburn Passion, by Amy Ng, a convincingly down-and-out Daniel Mays seeks solace in a London Underground station where classical music is playing; the urchin once taken up by a clergyman to become a cathedral chorister, then cruelly abandoned to nonentity when his voice broke, recognises the strains of Bach's St Matthew Passion, arousing his memories and revivifying his spirit; After Exile, by Grace Knight, deals with the unexpected role of music in coping with incipient deafness; Orchestral Groupies with Shaved Heads, by Emily De Dakis, evoked a bizarre relationship which develops between an orchestral musician and her regular fans in the choir seats; in Movement, by Ross Dunsmore, the concert newbie is alternately baffled by the music, enraptured by it (Stravinsky's Petrushka), angered and repelled by the audience, won over again by the music as she discovers a 'bridge' or bond between her and her boyfriend.
An original idea from Radio 3 - much to be applauded.
7 March 2017: The Pied Piper
- On 19 February, the Early Music Show celebrated the life and work of David Munrow, the early music performer, scholar and presenter who died in 1976 at the age of 33.
Munrow founded the Early Music Consort of London, with whom he released a stream of recordings and held many concerts which introduced the public to medieval and Renaissance music. He also presented music programmes on radio and television. Pied Piper on Radio 3 aimed to introduce children to music, fondly remembered by R3 controller Alan Davey who has announced he is keen on commissioning a modern version.
The programme was presented by William Lyons, director of the Dufay Collective, an ensemble specialising in medieval and Renaissance music. He began with a medieval dance song followed by two motets with the shawm (a precursor to the oboe). Tielman Susato's 'Renaissance big band' music was followed by Pèrotin's Viderunt Omnes, an 11th century Gregorian chant. Most of the composers featured are unknown to most modern listeners, yet are in Lyons's words instantly infectious. He ended with Michael Pretorius's better-known and much-transcribed Terpsichore.
William Lyons kept the talk between the musical extracts brief, letting the music speak for itself. It was nearly the end of the programme before he poured out his affection and admiration for Munrow and his performances. Munrow lifted off the shelf the music that had existed skeletally on paper, Lyons said, and 'gave it flesh, character and feature'.
Despite his hugely popular concerts and other activities Munrow was often criticised for not being authentic. Thankfully that has all changed, and the word 'authentic' is much less used today. Nowadays we talk about Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIPP), academics and performers having learned that they can only be informed about how music was played so many hundreds of years ago. Munrow's music may not have sounded 'authentic' to some scholars of medieval music, but Munrow was of course a scholar himself. What set him apart from the scholars who criticised him was that he possessed the imagination and ability to interpret the music and an almost super-human talent to play all those weird and wonderful ancient musical instruments and make the music come alive.
The programme was a feast of music that sounded fresh and fun, with a tribute that was not only moving but also informative and entertaining. William Lyons was a product of the music Munrow created and was an excellent choice as presenter. He was twelve when Munrow died and bought his first shawm when he was fourteen, having been hooked on the sound of music Munrow performed. Forty years on, he is the director of one of the leading ensembles of medieval and Renaissance music. Lyons said of his teenage-self that "we were all into punk and ska", but was suggesting that when well played, Renaissance music can be as fun for young people as any of the popular music they enjoy.
This was yet another in the run of consistently excellent Early Music Shows.
18 February 2017: Aranjuez con spirito
- The subject of Building a Library on on 18 February was Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, one of the most popular concertos of the last century. First performed in Barcelona in 1940 it was not recorded until 1948 by its dedicatee Regino Sainz de la Maza, whose version turned up on Radio 3 a year or so ago. Reviewer Tom McKinney did not feature that, but did sample the 1959 version by Renata Tarragó, the first woman to record it. He guided us expertly through all the great recordings (and a few not-so-great), highlighting points of interpretation and performance. Julian Bream recorded it 4 times over 30 years, John Williams 3 times. Segovia was miffed that he was not involved in the work's conception or performance history, but then (as Tom didn't tell us) he was living in Uruguay at the time.
Tom dealt briskly with some of the contenders. Ricardo Gallén - reticent opening to the Allegro con spirito. Siegfried Behrend - manic. Narciso Yepes - none of his five recordings good enough, uphill struggle. David Russell - zips along. Xuefe Yang - expansive, beautifully judged. Miloš Karadaglić - super-slick, far too perfect (though Sue Böhling's cor anglais solo received an honourable mention). There were insights into the composition - the myths surrounding the Adagio, and Segovia's belief that sections should have been rewritten or transposed down an octave (as John Williams does at one point).
In the end, it came down to a shortlist of four - Craig Ogdon, let down by his third movement, John Williams with the Philharmonia under Louis Frémaux, Julian Bream with John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Orchestra, and Pepe Romero with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Neville Marriner, this last being the winner.
Building a Library is one of the most eagerly-anticipated items in the Radio 3 week, often generating pages of heated discussion on the Forum for two weeks before the actual broadcast. With a 45-minute slot for works ranging in length from Tallis's Spem in alium (10 minutes) to Wagner operas, and with numbers of recordings from less than 10 to getting on for 100, the case is often made for greater flexibility, and for the return of the old Interpretations on Record feature which allowed for more leisurely discussion. Quite often the reviewer is a critic or presenter, but here he is a guitarist himself, bringing that added degree of insight. Occasionally the BAL spot takes the form of a discussion between the visiting expert and Andrew McGregor, with varying degrees of success. This was a 'scripted' BAL, of the sort generally preferred by Forum respondents, and was a fine example of the genre.
28 January 2017: First in a Row
- Radio 3 began its year of New Year's Revolutions with a season of programmes under the heading Breaking Free - The Minds that Changed Music. Celebrating the Second Viennese school, the season focused on the music and ideas of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, his students and associates. To this day, for some, their music is perceived as difficult and hard to love. Their work did turn the tables on the past, but did not obliterate it: to shut out the Second Viennese School, says Radio 3's The Listening Service, is to miss out on a rich and very rewarding period of music history.
The BBC offered some useful keys on the Listening Service website to an understanding of the music.
To the question 'How should we listen?', producer Elizabeth Arno says "I think that the main issue and source of controversy with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern is that some of us hear where the music comes from and others hear where it leads to. This is the dividing point, and the main opportunity that we have in Breaking Free is to demonstrate how this seemingly revolutionary music emerged organically from composers like Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Wagner (in Schoenberg's own words!), while also acknowledging the shocking and revolutionary sound of the atonal and subsequent serial works.
Schoenberg was Composer of the Week from 2-5 January, and Donald Macleod was described on the Forum as 'making a very good job of de-mystifying this music, aided by some of the best recordings to this end'.
Stephen Johnson presented an absorbing programme about Sigmund Freud's enigmatic relationship with music, centred around a tour of Freud's exile home in Hampstead. This was guided by R3 regular David Nice whose first job was to lead tours around the house. Johnson spoke to the American cultural analyst Michelle Duncan, psycho-analysts and writers Darian Leader and Julie Jaffee Nagel, and the Barcelona-based neurologist Josep Marco Pallares who is studying the conditions of amusia and music-specific anhedonia, which he proposes might have been the root cause of Freud's problem with music. Other theories centred around Freud's possible reluctance to surrender to the irrational in music, and a perfectionist's dislike of listening to music in cafès, something shared with many R3 listeners.
The many-stranded season was well received, and arguably showed Radio 3 at its very best - didactic, challenging and above all enjoyable. There were relatively few comments on the Forum for such an important series of programmes, although this may have reflected diffidence about piling into a discussion which was led by contributions from the Forum's resident professional composers rather than a lack of interest. A not untypical exchange was 'I hadn't realised that the Waltz from Op 23 was considered by anyone to be Schoenberg's first wholly 12-tone serial-based work - some commentators cite the vocal movement from the wonderful Serenade Op 24' to which someone else replies 'It all depends on what is meant by "first", "wholly", and "serial-based", I suppose!'. Discussion of this music can easily become highly technical, but, as someone comments, fugues are technical too.
Altogether this was an outstanding start to the year.
Tuesday, 3 October 2023