If Radio 3 is to keep a safe distance from Classic FM, it needs to re-embrace Reithian values

- 14 March 2014

Radio 3: How long can it keep it up?

Radio 3: Has it strayed too far from its Reithian roots?

Following the new director-general’s promise to raise the profile of arts and music, it is surely time to reconsider the narrow and over-repetitive repertoire broadcast on Radio 3, especially at prime time.

Understandably, the content of Live in Concert depends on what is available. But too often there seems to be little coordinated strategy. A depressing example occurred on 28 November, when Live in Concert featured BBCNOW in Prokofiev’s third piano concerto and Rachmaninov’s second symphony, rather than the much rarer opportunity to relay music by Takemitsu and Ligeti in fine performances by the BBCSSO from the Royal Festival Hall.

Fair enough, except that a performance of the Prokofiev by BBCNOW with a different soloist had been broadcast only the previous afternoon, also paired with a Rachmaninov symphony!

Instead the Takemitsu and Ligeti (including his violin concerto) were shunted into separate editions of Hear and Now which, despite the extra half-hour promised by Tony Hall, remains a virtual cultural ghetto, at an anti-social time leading up to or even straddling midnight, when most Radio 3 listeners have surely gone to bed. This reinforces the false perception that these composers are unsuitable for general consumption, overlooking their music’s very real accessibility. Indeed, the BBC’s website hails the Ligeti concerto as already ‘a classic of the late 20th century’; in which case why not play it during the three hours devoted to Essential Classics each weekday morning, whose content &#8210 despite Rob Cowan’s more intriguing choices &#8210 can be tediously routine.

Sarah Walker and Rob Cowan, presenters of Radio 3's  Essential Classics

Sarah Walker and Rob Cowan, presenters of Radio 3’s Essential Classics

Spread across the other Live in Concert programmes that week were a concerto, two overtures and three symphonies all by Beethoven. Great he may be, but Beethoven and other popular classics too much displace the rich diversity of repertoire we should be enabled to enjoy. Masterworks like Debussy’s La Mer and the Ravel String Quartet are so constantly re-broadcast that I no longer want to hear them, while other composers of their time are neglected or, at least, deserve hearing more often. Indeed, over-repetition of the obvious applies to the whole 20th century. If ratings are important, so surely are inclusiveness, balance, and imaginative varied programming. Should not the BBC be spearheading a broadening of the repertoire rather than colluding in its contraction?

In a written submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee ahead of the charter revue, Classic FM has accused Radio 3 of ‘aping’ its format by focusing on lighter repertoire, playing extracts and introducing phone-ins. Most damagingly it claims that the BBC is ‘plotting a course firmly towards the increasing popularisation of the service and the dilution of its core public service output, [thus] eroding the choice available to listeners [and using] its public funding to chase ratings’.

Sadly Roger Wright’s rebuttal was less than convincing. The station doesn’t do ‘chatter’, he said, and rarely plays extracts. Yet the ‘chats’ &#8210 ok, interviews &#8210 on Essential Classics between the presenter and an invited guest can be disappointingly superficial. While barely a fortnight later, in response to a request from that week’s guest to hear Mozart’s Dissonance quartet, only its jaunty finale was played without any explanation of why the quartet as a whole had acquired that title.

There are exceptions: an afternoon series of American symphonies earlier this year and more recently four afternoons featuring Thea Musgrave. The breadth and marketing success of the Proms are admirable. And there is another exemplar in Composer of the Week which ranges from major figures to living composers and the little known. Celebrating its 70th birthday, the programme invited listeners to propose composers whom it had never previously broadcast.

The astonishing response of more than 4,500 different suggestions indicates that many Radio 3 listeners do have an appetite for the byways as well as the highways. First to be broadcast, Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), must have been unknown to nearly everyone &#8210 including, as he admitted, Donald Macleod, the programme’s presenter. There will have been many for whom, like me, her brilliantly dazzling Piano Quintet No 1 in A minor proved a glorious discovery. Significantly, those who proposed Farrenc appear first to have encountered her music through a rare previous broadcast, instigating their own personal quest.

The ubiquitous availability of ‘easy listening’ out of context, at the flick of a switch &#8210 diminishing the experience and encouraging listeners to pay little attention &#8210 was famously bemoaned by Benjamin Britten in his Aspen lecture 50 years ago. He would have been dismayed by its present advance, perhaps even by the saturation coverage of his own music in his anniversary year.

Where are the Reithian values which Tony Hall has promised to re-embrace, and which Reith himself defined as to educate and inform as well as entertain? Hall is quoted as committing to ‘quality over populism’, remarking that ‘the good does not always have to be popular’. Please Radio 3: may we have less repetition, more breadth, more intellectual and aural adventure!

Emeritus Professor Richard Steinitz founded the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 1978 and was its artistic director for 23 years

3 responses to “If Radio 3 is to keep a safe distance from Classic FM, it needs to re-embrace Reithian values”

  1. Heather Bills says:

    Quality over populism please!! It has become extremely hard to discern Radio 3 from Classic FM and they should surely provide different types of listening, both of which are valid. I was appalled to hear on a recent “Brain Teaser” Massenet’s Meditation from Thais was seemingly unrecognisable to the majority of listeners as it was in an arrangement for flute. Really?! Does this perhaps point to the changing demographic of the listeners, or is it a result of “dumbing down” in general?

    Heather Bills

  2. Terry Birchmore says:

    I agree. Over the past 5 years and, increasingly, over the past 2 years, I have found that I am increasingly irritated by broadcasts on Radio 3, which seem to be aping Classic FM. It this “popularization” working? I doubt it. I now switch off in favour of CD’s – so the BBC has lost a listener for the early morning programme, and for other content that would, 40 years ago, have been on Radio 2.

    Much of the content is still good. But – my devotion and commitment to Radio 3 is being severely tested – it is no longer the haven it used to be.

    Terry Birchmore

  3. Lynn MacGrath says:

    Has anyone calculated the ratio of talking to music on the Breakfast programme? It always feels to me as if there is a short piece of music, then the news (why? surely if you want news, there are plenty of other sources?) then some gossip, then some supplication to listeners to submit their favourite piece of British music, any music, anything…no! I want YOU to talk to ME, not the other way around – that’s why you are being paid a salary! To entertain & inform your audience!

    Lynn MacGrath

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.