Archive for the ‘Radio’ Category

For One Horrible Moment

April 26, 2013

The story I am about to tell is one which I have kept locked in the inmost recess of my secret heart, until persuaded otherwise by friends, therapists, and one particularly lenient magistrate.

So opens For One Horrible Moment, Peter Bradshaw’s grim and gothic coming-of-age story set in 1970s Fenland. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 14 years ago; nothing as funny has been broadcast since (though I give honourable mentions to The Sunday Format and Cabin Pressure).

It continues:

My father, I remember, was an eccentric man, whose idiosyncrasies alienated many people. He suffered from what psychologists now refer to as a narcissistic schizophrenic guilt complex. He would spend many tortured hours pointing at his reflection in the mirror and shouting, ‘That’s the man, officer.’

I hope you are now on the way to being hooked. The glorious bathetic silliness of the thing, allied to Bradshaw’s stilted, deadpan delivery, create a singularly amusing comedy. There’s nothing like it.

BBC Radio 7 has just begun repeating it. Give it a try.


2011 threesomes

January 3, 2012

The New Year is the signal for a bit of meme time around here. I like the meme – it’s a socially sanctioned excuse for theft. I stole this idea from a post on Becca’s Blog a year ago. So, what was my 2011 like, in various things?

Top 3 books
It was a pretty decent reading year. One book stands out among all the others, and that is Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which I began reading on holiday, sitting in Cologne Cathedral while I waited for an organ recital by Martin Baker to begin, and finished back in the UK. An utterly engrossing, lovable book. Perhaps I should investigate the family saga further in 2012. John Cheever’s Falconer was another highlight – a short novel about a university professor coping with life in prison. Like nothing I’ve read before, and Cheever is a writer with a magnificent eye for detail. On an arguably less exalted level – but no less wonderful – are Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books, all seven of which I devoured in the space of a few months in the middle of the year. His humanity and tolerance are infectious.

Top 3 CDs
Of the year’s new releases, I listened to The Prince Consort’s recording of Brahms’ Liebeslieder-Walzer and Stephen Hough’s Other Love Songs a lot. I was fortunate to be at the premiere of the Hough in the summer, and it is a work I have grown to love. Simon Standage’s Mozart violin concerti with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood have reminded me of the beauty of this music. I also found Christian Bruhn’s Timm Thaler soundtrack tremendous fun.

Top 3 films
I watched a titanic number of films last year (not Titanic; I am not mad). I rarely feel in the mood for watching Bergman, but I found it was his films that impressed me most of all. A genius. The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, but most of all Winter Light. I’ve been watching Fanny and Alexander over the New Year, for the first time in about ten years, and am enjoying being dazzled by it anew. Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp struck me as a great masterpiece, Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook both quite irresistible, and I’m delighted to hear that there is a new print being released in cinemas in a few months’ time. And I might name any of several others as my third film, but for the sake of variety let’s say Before Sunrise, which is a lovely film if you’re of a romantic disposition. (I saw a handful of brilliant new films at the cinema too, so for an alternative three try The King’s Speech, The Guard and Tomboy.)

Top 3 live music
It was a thrill seeing Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Parsifal at ENO in February. It’s only recently that I’ve started going to see Wagner live, and Parsifal is perhaps my favourite opera. John Tomlinson was a superb Gurnemanz, and I marvelled at the economy of the scoring. It exposes as misguided the popular conception of Wagner as sprawling and overblown. Love Stephen Hough at the Wigmore though I did, I think Marc-André Hamelin provided my piano recital of the year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, playing Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Debussy and, as his barnstorming finale, Liszt’s Reminiscences de Norma in the composer’s bicentenary year. And last of all, Pulp at Wireless. Jarvis has still got it.

Top 3 theatre
I’m including musicals and comedy, so there’s only one echt play, and even that’s not particularly echt – namely Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which I saw just before Christmas. A breathtaking thing to behold, and quite the most I’ve enjoyed myself in any theatre, perhaps anywhere ever. A rollercoaster, and wrong to single out individual performances in a production so delicious in every aspect (not least its superb music), but I must say I thought Oliver Chris particularly wonderful, funnier than I’ve ever known him before, not to mention James Corden, Tom Edden, Trevor Laird, Daniel Rigby, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. My trip to Chichester to see the new production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was a great treat, the cast superb (in spite of some doubts about Michael Ball), and I will make a point of revisiting it in London this year. And thirdly, Jonny Sweet’s lovely solo show, Let’s All Just Have Some Fun (and Learn Something, for Once), which I saw at the Soho Theatre in January. He stands at the front giving the audience bear hugs as they come in; one cannot but love the man.

Lastly, I must add another happy discovery, which has been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while but which I only began to pay attention to this year, John Finnemore’s radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. I think its central cast of four – Finnemore, Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Allam and Stephanie Cole – must be just about the strongest and most likeable since Rising Damp. A fourth series has just been commissioned. There is no end to Finnemore’s talents, apparently. He also wrote an excellent sketch show for Radio 4, and drew a picture a day on his blog, Forget What Did, as a sort of Advent calendar last month. You owe it to yourself to have a look.

Here’s hoping 2012 is similarly happy, for me and for all of you!

Desert island discs

May 29, 2011

We’re allowed to choose our own desert island discs, says the BBC. Well, what else do you think I’ve been doing with all my time since I was 10, Auntie? But I suppose it’s nice to feel that my nerdile behaviour has been sanctioned.

If you want to submit your own choices to the BBC, you can do so here. I won’t be joining you, as I don’t subscribe to their silly rules. I’m sure Kirsty Young is not so stringent on the programme. But if I were to be invited on, my eight records, luxury item and book would look something like this.

1. Johann Sebastian Bach Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf, BWV 226 (1729)

I can’t not choose something by Bach, and there are very few pieces I have happier memories of singing than this motet. It’s one thing to listen to music and another to make it, but I can always sing along to a recording, and if I try very hard I can almost convince myself I’m inside the music again. If you play the video and are able to read music you can follow Bach’s manuscript.

Spotify (Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner)

2. Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major, op. 109 (1820)

I might have chosen one of the late quartets, but I think that the final movement of this sonata probably moves me more than anything else Beethoven wrote. Utterly sublime.

YouTube (Claudio Arrau) | Spotify (Solomon)

3. Richard Wagner Parsifal (completed 1882)

All of it. I will need something big to get my teeth into while I’m stranded, and this will have to be it. Maybe the most celestial music Wagner wrote.

YouTube (Met / Levine, 1992) | Spotify (Bayreuth / Knappertsbusch, 1962)

4. Johannes Brahms Sonata for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano in F minor, op. 120 no. 1 (1894)

I think that of all composers Brahms may be the one of whom I would least readily dispose, and it was a difficult decision to choose this over one of the symphonies, but then I have orchestral music elsewhere in my selections. Gorgeous, and perhaps I may be permitted to take the clarinet and viola versions, each of which has quite a different character from the other.

Spotify (Paul Silverthorne, viola / Julian Jacobson, piano)

5. Fats Waller I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby (1931)

Probably the first jazz record I heard. There are several different recordings Waller made of this song, but this I think is the best, or at any rate the funniest. It can be taken as read that he was one of the most ludicrously brilliant pianists who ever drew breath (though his virtuosity doesn’t get much of a workout here), but he also overflowed with personality. If only I could have seen him perform live.

YouTube | Spotify

6. Alban Berg Violin Concerto, ‘Dem Andenken eines Engels’ (1935)

I’ve decided to make one of my choices a piece that moves me deeply though I don’t know it particularly well. Probably a good idea to turn this exile to my advantage by spending some of those long and lonely hours becoming properly acquainted with it.

YouTube (Frederieke Saeijs, violin / Orchestre National de France / Jonathan Darlington) | Spotify (Itzhak Perlman, violin / Boston Symphony Orchestra / Seiji Ozawa)

7. Herbert Howells Gloucester Service (1946)

Something else I have sung. I can’t explain exactly why it is that Howells’ church music does such strange things to my brain. His harmonic imagination is enormously exciting. If I were a proper composer and not just a Sunday one, I would choose to be able to write like this. I don’t have a preferred recording, but the ones from Hereford Cathedral and St John’s College, Cambridge that came out last year are both excellent.

YouTube | Spotify (both Collegiate Singers / Andrew Millinger / Richard Moorhouse, organ)

8. Miami Sound Machine Bad Boy (1985)

I know, I know. Just as every politician has to choose some [insert safe classical composer here, preferably British and/or straight] to suggest they may have a brain, I have to have something that may come across as tacky in the hope that it will persuade readers I’m not the complete square I so patently am. But it’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is, and this would be perfect for running around and exercising and keeping my spirits up. It is a song of which I do not tire. Brilliant, I am tempted to say.


Rather Teutonic, all told. No French music, which is a shame. A bit of Rameau would have been nice. But it is done. If I had to pick one it would be the Howells. Not something I would want to listen to frequently, but to keep aside for special occasions.

I take it that if, as an enormous number of castaways before me, I were to name a piano as my luxury, I would not be restricted to playing the music I’ve chosen? It seems a cheat, but everyone else presumably does it. So there we are. I’ve never played a Bechstein to my knowledge, so let’s have one of those.

Book? Well, first I’d like to swap the Bible for the Book of Common Prayer, if I may, and since there’s an awful lot of stuff to read in Shakespeare, I would probably ask in addition not for a work of literature but for the A-Z of London. I could do the knowledge on my return to civilisation, after learning how to drive.

I would be fascinated to read the choices of others. The Argumentative Old Git has posted his. What about you? Ah, go on.

Classic FM – a defence?

December 1, 2010

‘That was the very catchy third movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.’

Classic FM presenter, quoted by Alan Bennett in his diary entry of 8th July 1999

Revisiting Górecki’s striking third symphony in the wake of his death, and watching Tony Palmer’s harrowing film of it on BBC4 recently (which, if you’re interested, is still available for viewing online – or for downloading if you need more time – here until Thursday night), reminded me of a period of a couple of years in my youth when I was a regular listener of Classic FM. The slow movement of the Górecki became a sort of totem for Classic FM shortly after the station’s inception, played every Saturday morning on its chart show and probably several additional times throughout the week. I’m not sure I ever heard the first or third movements broadcast, and I now wonder how many of the people who bought the CD on the basis of its radio exposure ever thought to explore beyond the bounds of track 2.

I got a Panasonic portable stereo for my tenth birthday in 1993, which replaced the trusty old Sony (I think) tape recorder I’d had through my infancy. The advantage of this machine was that it possessed not only a twin tape deck but also a radio. And so for about two years, until I switched to Chris Evans on Radio 1, I woke up with Classic FM in the morning and listened to it in the evening before bed.

I haven’t listened to Classic FM since about 1995, except under duress, so I can’t speak of it with any authority, but my impression of the station is that it now embodies many things I have become strongly resistant to, the seeds of which were germinating from the very start. These include a profound conservatism of repertoire inclining strongly towards the banal, the presentation of music as bleeding chunks (and on no account should you google this phrase, unless you are blessed with a strong constitution) or as something meant primarily to soothe or deaden (an anaesthetic for life, if you will), and a lack of intelligent (or even remotely knowledgeable) presenters. Not to mention the adverts that intrude every few minutes. Plus ça change, some people will say, and not without justification. It was like this when it started up in 1992, and my antipathy towards it now is more as a result of the development of my own tastes in the intervening years than of any recent deterioration in the station’s standards – of which, as I say, I know nothing.

When purists moan about the dumbed-down version of ‘classical’ music such radio stations promote, they are told in mitigation that it offers outsiders an accessible entry into a world that most people perceive as elitist and cliquey. To which the natural inclination of people like me is to say, but does it? Do people develop a genuine and profound love of classical music (which might hypothetically encompass listening to Górecki 3 from start to finish) if they are fed on a diet consisting largely of things like Katherine Jenkins singing ‘Calon Lân’ or the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and including little or nothing to challenge the listener beyond their comfort zone? And I don’t mean comfort in purely musical terms. What proportion of the audience that used to listen to that Górecki every day, for instance, was aware of just what Dawn Upshaw was singing about and didn’t think of the music simply in terms of it being pretty and calming? Only a very small one, I suspect.

And yet how can I – how dare I – criticise it, when opening doors to a world of music is precisely what it did for me? It’s not as if I’d been deprived in that respect, because as the child of two music graduates I had been exposed to classical music from birth (and in all likelihood in utero as well), but I was quite content to listen to the LPs and tapes we already had, discovering the music my parents already knew and loved, including quite a bit of popular music, and did not much think of venturing further afield by myself. Then, at about the same time, we bought a CD player and I discovered Classic FM.

Opera had been a closed book to me until I heard a broadcast on Classic FM of a complete performance of La Bohème featuring Pavarotti and Freni and conducted by Thomas Schippers. I didn’t get into it properly until several years later, but it was this one broadcast that really started me off. I used to record things off the radio and listen back to them, and in this way my tastes broadened. Some examples that come readily to mind: ‘Der Nussbaum’ from Schumann’s Myrthen (Elly Ameling); ‘In sailing o’er life’s ocean wide’ from Ruddigore; Bach’s chorale prelude on ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’, BWV684 (Michael Radulescu); Górecki’s Totus Tuus; Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (Orchestra of the 18th Century/Brüggen); bits of Luigini’s Ballet Egyptien (RPO/Fistoulari); Bernstein’s On the Town; Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. There will be hundreds more that I’ve forgotten. I started asking for CDs for my birthday and Christmas. I think for Christmas 1994 I got the Karajan La Bohème, the Bernstein recording of Candide and Bryden Thomson and the Philharmonia playing Malcolm Arnold’s dances.

Among the more personable presenters in those days was Michael Mappin, an intelligent Scot who could pronounce foreign names and had been organ scholar at Aberdeen University, whose province was the weekday evening show. I used to enter his ‘Three of a Kind’ competitions, broadcast nightly at 10.20pm, which required listeners to phone up identifying the link between three musical excerpts. One I recall consisted of Mahler’s ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’, Saint-Saëns’ ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ and Puccini’s ‘O dolci mani’, the link being parts of the human body. I even won a couple of them late in 1993, which impressed various Welsh relatives. The CDs I received as prizes were of Schubert’s Trout Quintet and various songs (Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble, John Mark Ainsley), which I loved, and of Handel’s harpsichord suites (Martin Souter), which I must confess didn’t get played often.

This was safe territory in terms of quizzing – you phoned up and spoke in response to a pre-recorded message, and if you were the winner they read out your name on air half an hour later – but I was brave enough to phone Quentin Howard’s ‘Quotation Quiz’ one Saturday night in 1994, and ended up speaking to the Devizes-based future DAB mogul live on national radio, where I sailed through a question on Dido’s lament but came apart on the meaning of the phrase ‘auld lang syne’.

I rarely think about Classic FM now, but it was clearly an important aspect of my formative years, for which I am grateful – and who is to say there aren’t a handful of children around the country today undergoing a similar experience? It’s the easiest thing in the world for people like me to sneer, but three minutes of Bach tucked away between Saga commercials is better than no minutes of Bach at all, and so maybe there are grounds for giving thanks. In any case, surely our time would be better employed, rather than raging against the dying of the light (which is sometimes my natural inclination), doing something more proactive. It’s clear now, as it was when Classic FM was founded, that commercial radio cannot be relied upon for the propagation of excellence, so if you have a passion for music – for anything that enriches your life – find some way of passing it on to younger generations. Buy a CD for your nephew or niece, or organise a trip to a concert. Just because it sometimes seems the things we care about are not valued by the world at large does not mean they have no chance of outliving us.

‘Pass the parcel.
That’s sometimes all you can do.
Take it, feel it and pass it on.
Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.
Pass it on, boys.
That’s the game I wanted you to learn.
Pass it on.’

Alan Bennett, The History Boys, final lines