It’s hard to stay cross with Radio 3 for long. Just when I thought the network had stretched my loyalty too far by not only allowing Aled Jones to decamp to Classic FM but also saying goodbye to the great Catherine Bott, I had a comeback conversion. I’ll explain how that happened later. First, we should bewail the loss of Bott, who made The Early Music Show her own, with her enthusiasm, her practised authority, her ability to convey insights without being ponderous. She drew us in to share her passion for music and composers we’d never even heard of, let alone felt any desire to hear. Without her the programme will suffer (it’s been cut down from two shows a week to one), just as The Choir has sounded lost without Aled’s adventurous ears and conversational ease.
Bott, too, has been lured to Classic FM, where, according to the station’s website, she’s launching ‘one of the biggest non-fiction series in the history of British radio’, a boast that might be difficult to live up to. Everything You Wanted to Know About Classical Music began last week with an episode about period instruments (presumably as a follow-on from Bott’s career on Three). On Sunday she took us on a visit to La Scala, Milan — also perfect for Bott, who had a career as an opera singer before she came to radio, but not exactly where you would expect a series to start that is designed to make classical music less esoteric, more accessible.
Back, though, to Three and its ability to wheedle its way back into our affections. It was a routine car journey but with a simple switch of the radio button, that lifeline out of boredom, I found myself listening in to a conversation between Andrew McGregor and Richard Wigmore about some newly released recordings of Bach’s choral music. Not so gripping, you might think. But McGregor always informs and entertains and the combination of his familiar voice with the music of Bach and Wigmore’s insightful explanations was so absorbing it left me wondering when I arrived at my destination, how had I got there?
McGregor and Wigmore were talking about a rerelease of a 1950s Bach recording by the German conductor Karl Ristenpart. They played an excerpt. It sounded quite awful — heavy, slow, without spirit. Yet in its time the performance was regarded as superlative. A few minutes later they moved on to a 2013 recording of the Mass in B minor by Collegium Vocale 1704. The contrast was striking and such a vivid illustration of how performance styles change according to fashions in music. That insight was fascinating but what drew me in so completely was the way McGregor and Wigmore talked about these recordings. It was as if I was eavesdropping on a private conversation, a personal tutorial.
It was in any case impossible to boycott Three this weekend because the station was celebrating the work of the French writer Albert Camus. Who would want to miss out on a new dramatisation (by John Retallack) of that puzzling, disturbing novel The Outsider? The story of Meursault, who shoots a man dead and then refuses to offer any explanation or excuse for why he has done it, has haunted me ever since I first read it decades ago. Is Meursault simply a psychopath? Why, then, do we feel such sympathy for him, even though he shows no remorse, no fellow feeling for the man he has shot? Why does he continue shooting even after the man is patently dead? Why does Camus never give the victim a name? Does this make the writer complicit in Meursault’s crime? Camus did after all once suggest that Meursault is executed not so much for the crime he committed but because he refused to play the game that society demands of us.
Alex Lanipekun’s performance as Meursault was mesmerising (in a production directed by David Hunter). It was as if he were talking directly to us, his listeners, with a voice that conveyed no feeling, yet was filled with a sensual appreciation of the world. It made Meursault’s unwillingness to justify himself, or free himself from the steady onset of his fate, even more inexplicable, even more troubling.
Earlier in the weekend, The Wire gave us ‘a reimagining’ (by Leila Aboulela) of the unnamed characters in Camus’ novel. The Insider (directed by Jonquil Panting) looked at the lives of the man who was killed, Yusuf, and his sister Fatima, twisting and turning to give us different perspectives on what happens in the novel. It took a while to tune into this, not helped by the way it was scheduled for broadcast on Saturday before we’d had a chance to hear the The Outsider, and remind ourselves of the minor characters. Not a brilliant piece of timing. I gave up after the first few minutes and only returned (thank heavens for iPlayer) once I’d been reminded of the details of the plot. Then it drew me in, took me over; a melodramatic counterpoint to the frugal emotions of the original.
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