Archive for BBC Radio 3

Breaking Free

Posted in Art, Music with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve been enjoy a series of fascinating programmes about music from the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern) on BBC Radio 3 this week gathered under the umbrella title of Breaking Free. In the period from roughly 1903 to 1925 these composers finally abandoned the traditional forms of tonality that late Romantic composers such as Gustav Mahler had struggled with in their later work. Aside from its obvious emotional intensity, one of the reasons I find music from this period absolutely absorbing because it was written in a period of highly turbulent transition; you get such a strong sense of new possibilities being opened up when you listen to some of the pioneering works. Some of them are also extremely beautiful. I often hear people say that they they think atonal music sounds ugly, but I disagree. The same people would probably agree that birdsong is beautiful, and most of that is entirely atonal..

The only problem is that I’ve now got a very long list of recordings to buy, as I don’t have any CDs or downloads of some very important pieces. I’m going to be a but poorer financially as a consequence of this educational experience, but hopefully enriched in a cultural sense.

The “breaking free” in this period wasn’t confined to music – revolutionary change was underway in other artistic fields, including painting. Last night I was listening to one of the programmes in the Breaking Free series and it inspired me to have a look in some of my art books for something appropriate to post from the time (if not the location) of the 2nd Viennese School. I decided on this, wan abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky called Composition VII which was painted in 1913.


The Land of Might-Have-Been

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2017 by telescoper

Over the Christmas break Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 featured Ivor Novello. Ivor Novello was considered old-fashioned even in his own lifetime, but I have no shame in admitting that I love his music, which I think is beautifully crafted. Ivor Novello was born David Ivor Davies, in Cardiff. In fact the house in which he was born is very close to mine:


Anyway, the Radio programme about Ivor Novello encouraged me to put on a DVD of the fine film Gosford Park, the script for which, written by Julian Fellowes, won an Oscar. In the movie, Ivor Novello is played by Jeremy Northam who sings a number of songs with his brother Christopher accompanying him at the piano, including this one. With music by Ivor Novello and lyrics by Edward Moore, it conveys that sense of longing for a better world that many of us are feeling right now.

Somewhere there’s another land
different from this world below,
far more mercifully planned
than the cruel place we know.
Innocence and peace are there–
all is good that is desired.
Faces there are always fair;
love grows never old nor tired.

We shall never find that lovely
land of might-have-been.
I can never be your king nor
you can be my queen.
Days may pass and years may pass
and seas may lie between–
We shall never find that lovely
land of might-have-been.

Sometimes on the rarest nights
comes the vision calm and clear,
gleaming with unearthly lights
on our path of doubt and fear.
Winds from that far land are blown,
whispering with secret breath–
hope that plays a tune alone,
love that conquers pain and death.

Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?
Will I ever be your king or you
at last my queen?
Days may pass and years may pass
and seas may lie between–
Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?

Happy 70th Birthday to the “Third Programme”!

Posted in Jazz, Music, Opera, Uncategorized with tags , on September 29, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve just got time for a quick post-prandial post to mark the fact that 70 years ago today, on September 29th 1946, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made its first radio broadcast on what was then called The BBC Third Programme. The channel changed its name in 1970 to BBC Radio 3, but I’m just about old enough to remember a time when it was called the Third Programme; I was only 6 when it changed.


It was a bold idea to launch a channel devoted to the arts in the depths of post-War austerity and it was perceived by some at the time as being “elitist”. I think some people probably think that of the current Radio 3 too. I don’t see it that way at all. Culture enriches us all, regardless of our background or education, if only we are given access to it. You don’t have to like classical music or opera or jazz, but you can only make your mind up if you have the chance to listen to it and decide for yourself.

My own relationship with Radio 3 started by accident at some point during the 1990s while I was living in London. I was used to listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when I woke up, but one morning when my alarm switched on it was playing classical music. It turned out that there was a strike of BBC news staff so they couldn’t broadcast Today and had instead put Radio 3 on the Radio 4 frequency. I very much enjoyed it to the extent that when the strike was over and Radio 4 reappeared, I re-tuned my receiver to Radio 3. I’ve stayed with it ever since. I can’t bear the Today programme at all, in fact; almost everyone on it makes me angry, which is no way to start the day.

Over the years there have been some changes to Radio 3 that I don’t care for very much – I think there’s a bit too much chatter and too many gimmicks these days (and they should leave that to Classic FM) – but I listen most days, not only in the morning but also in the evening,  especially to the live concert performances every night during the week. Many of these concerts feature standard classical repertoire, but I particularly appreciate the number of performances of new music or otherwise unfamiliar pieces.

I also enjoy Words and Music, which is on Sunday afternoons and Opera on 3, which includes some fantastic performances Live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and which is usually on Saturday evenings. And of course the various Jazz on 3 programmes: Jazz Record Requests, Jazz Line-up, Geoffrey Smith’s Jazz, etc.

It’s not the just the music, though. I think BBC Radio 3 has a very special group of presenters who are not only friendly and pleasant to listen to, but also very knowledgeable about the music. They also have some wonderful names: Petroc Trelawny, Clemency Burton-Hill, and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, to name but a few. There’s also a newsreader whose name I thought, when I first heard it, was Porn Savage.

I feel I’ve found out about so many things through listening to Radio 3, but there’s much more to my love-affair with this channel than that. Some years ago I was quite ill, and among other things suffering very badly from insomnia. Through the Night brought me relief in the form a continuous stream of wonderful music during many long sleepless nights.

I wish everyone at BBC Radio 3 a very happy 70th birthday. Long may you broadcast!


Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on January 24, 2016 by telescoper

After spending most of the day on campus for the first Applicant Visit Day of 2106 at the University of Sussex I went home feeling a bit exhausted, but my spirits were soon lifted when I switched on BBC Radio 3 to find a broadcast just startiong of Tannhäuser (or  Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg to give it it’s full title). It wasn’t quite the usual Saturday Night Live from the Met because the performance was actually recorded on October 31st 2015 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so I won’t quibble about that. Composed in 1845,  Tannhäuser is a relatively early work by Richard Wagner which he called a  “Romantic opera in three acts” indicating that it has the structure of a conventional opera; later on in his career he was to abandon that format in favour of the Music Drama (which is not built on a succession of arias and recitatives) as Tannhäuser is.

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, but Tannhäuser is basically about typical Wagnerian themes: the conflict between spiritual and earthly love, between life and death, and the hope of redemption. The eponymous hero, a minstrel knight, takes a walk on the wild side in Act I by visiting Venusberg, in the course of which he is unfaithful to his beloved Elizabeth. He turns up in Act II at Wartburg where there i a sort of mediaeval Eurovision Song contest. First singer up is the naive but honorable Wolfram who sings a beautiful song about courtly love, but Tannhäuser finds it all a bit tame and sings a much raunchier number, which reveals that he’s been a naughty boy. There is uproar, swords are drawn and it all gets a bit fraught. Eventually Tannhäuser is persuaded to atone for his transgressions by undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately for him the Pope isn’t in an absolving mood and tells him he’s going to suffer eternal damnation. In Act III, Tannhäuser, clearly unhinged, talks about returning to Venusberg – if he’s damned anyway he might as well go out with a bang – but then he discovers his beloved Elizabeth is dead and, overcome by grief and remorse,  he dies too.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an ambivalent attitude to Wagner, but last night I was hooked from the moment I switched the radio on and listened right through to the end, which came four hours later. I have heard Tannhäuser before and knew the familiar show-stoppers (especially the famous Pilgrim’s Chorus, which is as uplifting a piece of music as you will hear anywhere). What was so very special last night, however, was the quality of the singing, which was truly wonderful all the way through the principals and chorus. The broadcast is available on iPlayer for the next month. If you have never had a taste of Wagner, give it a go. This opera is full of great tunes but they were sung better in this performance than in any other I have heard. As a little taster, here is Wolfram (sung by baritone Peter Mattei) from the same production we heard last night, singing his Act III aria O du mein holder Abendstern (O thou my fair evening star).



Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Suites for Solo Cello

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on September 7, 2015 by telescoper

I stayed in on Saturday night especially to listen to a very special promenade concert live on BBC Radio 3 during which renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma played all six of the Suites for unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was an absolutely brilliant concert which you can, if you missed it, or even if you didn’t,  download for the next month here. The whole thing runs for over two and a half hours, but I didn’t move from my seat once.

I’ve loved all these pieces from the moment I first heard them. How Bach manages to conjure up such a vast range of melodic and rhythmic possibilities using just the one instrument is almost miraculous. Despite using very few chords, they manage to explore the  harmonic domain too. Part of what makes them so special is the instrument itself – its earthy sound, complete with occasional growls and scrapes, emphasizes how this sublime music is somehow at the same time deeply human, somehow connecting the listener to something from far beyond the mundane world we normally inhabit. I’m not a religious man, but listening to music like this is a spiritual experience for me.

Do listen to the whole concert if you can, but if you can’t here’s a short taster (recorded elsewhere). This is the Prelude to the 1st Suite, the first page of which is here:


If you look at the sheet music you might be forgiven for thinking that it is just a dry exercise in playing across the strings. Listen to it come to life, however, and you’ll quickly realise that you were wrong. The ending of this prelude always sends shivers down my spine.

I know these suites have been transcribed for other solo instruments, such as the flute, but listening to them on Saturday I wondered if they had been transcribed for my favourite earthy and growly instrument, the tenor saxophone. In fact they have; you can hear an example here.  One problem that struck me immediately is that saxophonists have to pause for breath! Anyway,  I must get a copy of the transcription and have a go at learning it, though I think it would take a Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane to do them justice!


R.I.P. Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on July 12, 2015 by telescoper

Ah well. Back in the office on a rainy Sunday afternoon after a few days away trying to catch up before a very busy week next week. I thought I’d pause first, however, to pay my respects to the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose death I learnt of last night. Many tributes have been paid to him already, including several examples of his work on Radio 3 this morning. There’s nothing much I can add to them except to say that he not only had a great voice, but was also a fine actor with a powerful stage presence.

What I can do is post again one of my favourite examples of Jon Vickers, singing the greatest passages in one of the greatest of all operas, Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Most people I know who have seen Peter Grimes think it is a masterpiece, and I’m interested to see another physics blog has already discussed this aria. Still, I don’t think Britten is sufficiently appreciated even in the land of his birth. There aren’t that many operas written in English so perhaps we feel a little uncomfortable when we can actually understand what’s going on without reading the surtitles?

I’ve often heard Peter Grimes described as one of the great operas written in English. Well, as far as I’m concerned you can drop “written in English” from that sentence and it’s still true. It’s certainly in my mind fit to put up alongside anything by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and even Mozart.

In this aria it’s not just the extraordinary vocal line, beginning way up among the “head notes” beyond a tenor’s usual range, that makes it such a  powerful piece of music,  but also the tragic poetry in the words. The main character of Peter Grimes is neither hero nor villain, but  a man trapped in his own destiny. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the word:

Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher in storm or starlight
The written character of a friendly fate
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?

The part of Peter Grimes was actually written by Britten specifically to suit the voice of his partner, Peter Pears, who performed the role first. The classic recording of that performance is wonderful, but this later version starring Jon Vickers is quite different, and the inner agony portrayed by Vickers’ voice in the upper register is most moving. For its combination of musical expressiveness and dramatic intensity, this music really does take some beating even if you listen to it on its own outside the context of the opera.

Rest in Peace, Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

Dialogues des Carmélites

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2014 by telescoper

I don’t usually blog about Opera unless it’s to do with a performance I’ve actually attended in person, but I couldn’t resist posting something about the live broadcast from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden of Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc that I heard last night on BBC Radio 3.

I’m basically a complete ignoramus when it comes to the music of Poulenc. With the exception of a few small chamber pieces of his that I’ve heard (and very much liked) I don’t know much about him as a composer at all. Last night’s performance however has inspired me to rectify that omission. To that end I’d be grateful of any recommendations through the comments box.

Anyway, back to Dialogues des Carmélites. This is based on the true story of the martyrdom of sixteen Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. Not knowing what to expect I was completely stunned by the music, much more melodic than I had expected, and beautifully played by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. There are so many references to other composers in this piece that my head was spinning, but the strongest influence I could hear was Giacomo Puccini. Indeed, at times it sounded more like Puccini than Puccini ever did! I was gripped by the whole performance, but the ending, with the nuns singing the Salve Regina as they walk one by one to the scaffold, the dread sound of the guillotine repeatedly falling was utterly horrific and utterly compelling. In fact it was such a powerful experience I was trembling at the finish. Perhaps the fact that it was an audio broadcast only made it even more intense, precisely because so much was left to the imagination. It wasn’t exactly easy listening, but as a piece of music drama it was a triumph.

The entire performance is available for the next seven days on the BBC iPlayer in High Definition sound via this link. If you make time to listen to it, I promise you won’t regret it – although the ending might give you nightmares!

Another thing worth mentioning was that this was the largest cast ever to appear on the stage of the Royal Opera House; no less than 167 people altogether. Among those involved were members of Streetwise Opera, a charitable organization quite new to me, which uses music to help homeless people make positive changes in their lives. This is such a brilliant idea that I sent a donation to support their work. I urge you to do likewise.

Early Junction: Door of the Cosmos

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 15, 2014 by telescoper

One of the quirks of being in Japan is the 9 hour time difference between here and the UK, which means I’m just getting up when folk back home are going to bed; and one of the consequences is that BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction is on (via the internet) in the morning. It’s playing as a write this, in fact. Yesterday morning there was a track by Sun Ra, which reminded me that 2014 is the centenary of his birth. It prompted me to look back at an old post I’d written about him where I found the track included there had been deleted from Youtube. I therefore decided to post a new version, including a different track.

Sun Ra was one of the most extraordinary composers and bandleaders of the 20th Century,  was born Herman Poole Blount in Bimingham, Alabama, on 22nd May 1914. From the 1950s, until his death in 1993, he led various combinations of musicians in bands with various permutations of names involving the word Arkestra, such as the Blue Universe Arkestra and the Solar Myth Arkestra. He himself played keyboards, sometimes solo and sometimes with huge bands  of over 30 musicians; his music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz, as well as soul and pop. He was also  one of the first musicians, in any genre, to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.

He never achieved mainstream commercial success, but was a prolific recording artist with a cult following, partly fuelled by his outrageous claims to have been born not on Earth but on Saturn and the fact that much of his music was to do with space travel. Quoted in Jazziz magazine

They really thought I was some kind of kook with all my talk about outer space and the planets. I’m still talking about it, but governments are spending billions of dollars to go to Venus, Mars, and other planets, so it’s no longer kooky to talk about space

Quite. In fact, Sun Ra developed a complex performing identity based on his music, “cosmic” philosophy, and poetry. He abandoned his birth name, took on the persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun), and often dressed in the style of an ancient Egyptian pharoah, as in the video clip. In other words, he was very odd.

Sun Ra’s music is eclectic, outrageous and sometimes downright mystifying, but it also has a marvellous coherence to it maintained as his style evolved over four decades and is consistently imbued with a powerful sense of the Jazz tradition.  Anyway, whatever I think, the music of Sun Ra has withstood its skeptics and detractors for generations and long may it continue to do so. The world needs more of his kind of eccentric.

Here’s a number called Door of the Cosmos. See what you think.

Always seeking greater silence

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 11, 2013 by telescoper

Just a quick plug for a fascinating programme I heard on BBC Radio 3 last night about the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. It’s called Always Seeking Greater Silence and it is available on iPlayer for your listening pleasure.

Here’s an excerpt from the published description of the programme:

RS Thomas was a man full of contradictions, but one constant was his passion for birdwatching. Towards the end of his life he said that ‘the deity has chosen to reveal himself to me via the world of nature’. He also declared that he preferred to be alone with nature than be with human beings. Bird imagery in particular provided him with a means of symbolising renewal, nourishment and femininity in his poetry, but also of exploring his faith in God. Increasingly towards the end of his life, his bird poems explored the space between faith and doubt. In ‘Sea-watching,’ he directly associates bird-watching with prayer: ‘Ah, but a rare bird is/ rare. It is when one is not looking/ at times one is not there/ that it comes’.

I have the utmost admiration for R.S. Thomas as a poet, but I do wonder how effective he was as a priest looking after his flock when he could come out with statements like the following:

I’ve had more pleasure from being alone with the natural creation than I have with human beings. Human beings are responsible for so much unhappiness and cruelty and failure that one is not terribly enthusiastic about them.

This rather bleak view of humanity explains to some extent why so many of his poems are about the natural world rather than people, but he is unlike many other “nature poets” in that his voice is unflinching and devoid of sentimentality. Although not religious myself, I also deeply respect his openness about his struggle with faith and doubt – he seems to me to have been a man who was deeply allergic to superficiality, a trait which also manifests itself in his verse.

It is the centenary of the birth of R.S. Thomas on 29th March 2013. I hope I remember to mark the occasion with an appropriate poem.

Shostakovich and Debussy

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2012 by telescoper

With Cardiff likely to be in the grip of Olympic Torch fever I decided yesterday to avoid the crowds as much as possible and take in a  bit of culture in the form of a concert at St David’s Hall. My usual route into work being blocked by the closure of Bute Park to the public I walked into the city centre, paid in a few very welcome royalty cheques at the bank, and went to St David’s in person to book a ticket. I had no problem getting a good seat, but the staff issued dire warnings about getting here in good time for the 7.30 start as the Olympic Torch would be passing right in front of the venue just before the concert.

Despite the crowds I reckoned I had time for a quick pint (or two) in the Poet’s Corner before kick-off. Walking there from my office I saw a few people on Newport Road waiting for the Torch and its entourage, but not all that many. While I drank and chatted with a couple of PC regulars, the noise of a helicopter circling announced the arrival of the flame in our vicinity. I was almost tempted to pop outside for a look, but although the Olympic Torch was outside, the beer was inside and a man must have priorities in life.

So about 6.45 I headed off towards St David’s Hall. There were people out and about, but no more than you’d expect on a sunny Friday evening. Traffic had already re-started and disruption seemed fairly minimal. I don’t know where the Torch had got to by then but I arrived at the Hall at 7.00 to find a crowd watching it on the Big Screen in the Hayes. I went straight in and had a nice glass of wine.

When I got into the auditorium for the evening’s concert I was a bit taken aback, not only by the huge size of the orchestra (particularly the brass section) but also by its unusual arrangement: the strings were divided in two, arranged more-or-less symmetrically with cellos and basses to far left and far right. I was also initially perturbed that my favourite handsome violinist was not in his usual place, but I soon located him and all was well with the world.

The concert, featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by associate guest conductor Francois-Xavier Roth, was broadcast live last night on BBC Radio 3, incidentally, and you can listen to a recording here.

The unusual orchestral arrangement was needed for the first piece of the concert, called Sound and Fury, by contemporary French composer Philippe Manoury. This is a work that’s full of contrasting moods, set against an overall concept relating to the battle between order and chaos. Passages in which stable melodic lines can be identified evolve into savage cacophony and back again; there are also sequences where the two halves of the orchestra act as two independent forces, challenging and responding to each other across the stage. Not exactly easy listening, but fascinating nonetheless.

After the interval we had the two “main pieces” of the evening, played by a more conventional orchestral line-up. First was the First Violin Concerto by Dmitry Shostakovich with soloist Daniel Hope (dressed, I have to say, in a horrible shiny suit). The open movement, entitled Nocturne, is striking for its lightness, and the apparent simplicity of its singing solo lines. The second movement Scherzo, darker and more intense, is followed by a wonderful slow movement marked Passacaglia, the end of which is marked by a fiendishly difficult solo cadenza that bridges into the final Burlesque. Daniel Hope played it with great verve and confidence, but in the context of the overall work I found it a bit gratuitous. Still an impressive piece, though, with many of the hallmarks of Shostakovich’s great symphonies.

The last piece was Images pour Orchestra by Claude Debussy. While the preceding Shostakovich work is perhaps a symphony masquerading as a suite, Images is definitely not a symphony. It’s a series of impressionistic and enigmatic vignettes of very differing mood. It’s in three movements, but the central one is itself divided into three distinct parts, so it is really five movements. The opening one includes, to my surprise, the Northumbrian tune The Keel Row and there are references to Spanish and French folk songs later on.  The whole impression you get listening to this work is similar to walking through an art gallery looking at paintings that relate to each other in some ways, but contrast in others, or perhaps reading an anthology of poems by different poets.

Three different works from the 20th century, each with a very characteristic voice of its own and each with much to enjoy made for an absorbing concert. St David’s Hall was rather sparsely populated – the Cardiff audience is notoriously conservative in its musical tastes, and the Olympic Torch business wouldn’t have helped –  but those that had made the effort were extremely appreciative at the end.

Having got my musical fix for the week I headed home. It must have only been about 9.45, but the concert in Bute Park seemed to have ended already. The city was busy, but not unusually so. The barricades had gone, and the buses were running again. I walked home through Sophia Gardens in the deepening twilight and saw a bat flying nimbly in silhouette against the crescent moon. Whatever happens in the future, that Image will be a treasured memory of Cardiff.