Friday, March 03, 2006

'Radio 3's "elitism" is its lifeblood'

A row over BBC Radio 3's Building a Library.
From the New Statesman
Radio 3 rows are particularly delicious - like dons arguing in the common room, writes Rachel Cooke

In the pages of the Guardian, an enjoyable row recently broke out: it concerns Radio 3. Radio 3 rows are particularly delicious. The station's fans may be less bonkers than certain devotees of Radio 4, but they are no less passionate. They cherish its atmosphere, which - against all the odds - remains rarefied and deeply, almost pathologically, Reithian. When they go public, they are truly a sight to behold, a bit like university dons arguing about which obscure journals their common room should take. You listen, and you think: gracious, does such a title really exist? And then you smile, grateful that it does.

It was Martin Kettle who started it all, by writing a column in which he bemoaned the fate of Building a Library, a programme that, though it is now part of Saturday's CD Review, has been around since the days of the Third Programme. Kettle used to love Building a Library's "fine and democratic purpose" - it was designed to appeal to an average listener who wants to build a basic collection of classical recordings. These days, however, he finds it irritatingly obscure. Why, for instance, was Concerto funebre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann recently featured? Or the music of Elliott Carter? The programme, he wrote, has been hijacked by specialists, with the result that he now understands why Classic FM is so successful.

Needless to say, many letters followed, and another Guardian column, by Mark Lowther, the producer of CD Review. The letters mostly stuck up for Building a Library. One correspondent pointed out that when he went online to order Hartmann's Concerto Funebre, he was informed that, thanks to the broadcast, it was now out of stock. Lowther, meanwhile, defended his decision to devote a programme to the operas of Francis Poulenc: "ENO's superb production of Dialogue of the Carmelites has just been revived to great acclaim, Felicity Lott has quite recently added her mesmerising interpretation of La Voix humaine to the catalogue - the time seemed right." I read this, and though, in the past, I've never knowingly heard an opera by Poulenc, I found myself looking both works up on Amazon.

I think my reaction illustrates the worth of Building a Library - and why Kettle, for all his good socialist intentions, is wrong about it. The programme, with its expert critiques, manages to convey a certain excitement about recorded music; for me, that excitement only increases if the piece in question is something with which I am not familiar (and I am no expert). I agree that Hartmann or Poulenc may not be part of what we think of as the central canon of classical music, but so what? I'm with the dons on this: Radio 3's "elitism" is its lifeblood. Kettle is welcome to try Classic FM; there, happily, he will find lots of tunes to "de-stress" by. He can "unwind" with a nice bit of Strauss. The rest of us will stick with Radio 3. Better classical music as self-improvement than as self-help.

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