What are Radio 3 presenters for? Is guidance useful … or annoying?

I’ve poached this posting re the Breaking Free season on Radio 3 from Facebook


‘ I still defy anyone to explain convincingly how they can truly enjoy such agonising random noise.’ ‘Is it very sad that I am glad to have missed it? It takes so much hard work that it is as hard to appreciate it as badly written music’ – to quote just two posts to Radio 3’s Second Viennese School week on this strand. So the fact that you [the poster]  ‘cannot stand being told by Rob Cowan and his colleagues how [you] should respond to each piece of music, or performer, instead of being allowed to form [your] own judgement’ raises a vital question: what is a presenter for? IIn the old Third Programme days it was a question of reading scripts that were invariably written by someone else. They were announcers, we’re presenters – and therein lies the principal difference. Last week’s Viennese escapade is the perfect of example of music that needed explaining, at least for those who had yet to discover it. Performers too sometimes take interpretative options that call for some clarification (Glenn Gould, Horowitz, Huberman, Toscanini, Furtwängler), especially in view of today’s very different interpretative manners.  Throughout my life presenters, critics, commentators, historians and the like have helped nourish my responses to a thousand and one subjects. When that stops happening I will take myself off to bed and hope I never wake up. I will have stopped functioning intellectually. I especially like Nietzsche’s idea that having the courage to oppose your convictions is more important than simply having the courage of your convictions – and by entering into dialogue with our Radio 3 listeners (which on the whole we do very successfully) that’s precisely what we do. Please follow this up …  it’s an important topic.


All my life I’ve suffered the accusation of being a nerd, first in childhood as an aircraft spotter, then as a record collector (especially regarding comparisons between different performances) , then as a collector (and reader) of poetry books and other literature and now because of my abiding love for John Ruskin. My wife Georgie and my daughters are honourable exceptions but others see my all-consuming passion as freakish, even though I feel it as deeply nourishing. How do others feel?

The Second Viennese School – open door or blind alley?

As part of their Breaking Free season on Radio 3, on Essential Classics I’m presenting, on weekday mornings, the complete run of Schoenberg string quartets, from the Dvorakian D major of Schoenberg’s youth to the gnarled but often beautiful last quartet, a serial masterpiece rarely heard. But has the 12-tone method had its day, now that the new ‘melodic’ phase seems to have taken over? What nowadays constitutes a listening challenge? Is dissonance, of whatever kind, a bar or a stimulant? Please discuss.

Toscanini – the big day approaches

  • Saturday March 25th marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the conductor who many consider to have been the 20th Century’s greatest. Arturo Toscanini, whose photographic memory allowed him to conduct even the most complex scores from memory, led the premieres of La bohème and Pagliacci and conducted Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Parsifal when they were still ‘new’ music. He worked with the greatest singers of the day (principally at La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera), and the finest orchestras too, most notably the New York Philharmonic Symphony and the NBC Symphony, the latter formed especially for him in 1937.
  • So much for the basic history. But what about the recordings? Early, acoustically recorded shellac discs with the La Scala Orchestra prove beyond doubt that here was a Maestro whose ability to imbue his players with a sense of musical purpose matched, if not exceeded, the abilities of his finest rivals.The next shellac phase included electrically recorded (ie recorded via a microphone) versions of Haydn, Beethoven and Wagner with the NYPSO that many consider to be benchmarks and similar repertoire with a less pristine but equally responsive BBC Symphony Orchestra.
  • The RCA NBC legacy stretches from 1937 to 1954, often involving, certainly if you include unpublished broadcasts, multiple versions of the same work which trace a marked curve of interpretative development. The repertoire represented includes the complete Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, as well as Haydn, Mozart, Wagner and Verdi (most notably Falstaff and Otello, both complete, and the Requiem).
  • What I want to do here is open a discussion about the contemporaneity of Toscanini as an interpreter, whether in the light of period performance practice and the way orchestral performance has evolved his burning, full-on approach to the classics serves as a timeless source of inspiration or a dinosaur with a rather hoarse voice.
  • Please quote specific examples, preferably all-time favourites …. and check out RCA’s forthcoming ‘Toscanini: the Essential Recordings’ set (20 cds) which Richard Osborne is reviewing for The Gramophone. Also in Gramophone I’m down to review recordings in the ‘Immortal Performances’ series, broadcast performances, including a rare account of Brahms’s German Requiem with Friedrich Schorr and Elizabeth Rethberg. That’s something I can’t wait to hear!
  • so, let’s get talking!
  • Best
  • Rob

Rob’Gold Standard on Saturday Classics – 1-3 pm on BBC Radio 3 …

This week Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Second Symphony conducted by Rafael Kubelík, the wonderful voices of Conchita Supervia and Oscar Natzka, Rene Leibowitz conduct Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz (a stunning Reader’s Digest recording), the Beaux Trio’s first recording of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio, Hermann Scherchen’s first recording of Messiah (surely the most exhilarating ‘For unto us’ you’ve ever heard!), Jeanne-Marie Darré playing Chopin, Karl Richter’s swirling Archiv version of Brandenburg Three, Mravinsky igniting Wagner’s ‘Venusberg Music’, Rowicki’s stirring version of Dvorák’s Hussites Overture and Ralph Kirpatrick playing Purcell – not bad for starters. Lots more planned . Do let me have your reactions. Best. Rob

Nikolaus Harnoncourt announces retirement

Harnoncourt’s highly stylised contribution to the evolving art of early music interpretation allowed us new-found access to Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Biber etc in terms of a uniquely fresh (and sometimes abrasive) sound-world. Not a calorie in sight, just numerous sonorities that told a very different story to the ones we already knew. NH once said to me (or words to this effect): ‘the idea with period instruments isn’t so much to play music the way it sounded then, as to hear music the way the composer himself heard it when he wrote it.” It was his view that the music sounds better on old instruments, plain and simple. That for Harnoncourt was the essence of authenticity, after years of playing, say, heavy-duty Bach Suites, Brandenburgs and Passions with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (as an Orchestra cellist). But what about Harnoncourt’s way with later music, from Mozart and Haydn, through Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, to Bartók to Berio? Again there were always sundry revelations to savour en route, but some wilful mannerisms too (I cite the rhetorical pauses in Mozart 40’s finale as an example). What do people think? Will Harnoncourt’s recordings be heard as provocative signals from his time, or as a starting point for new trains of interpretative thought for ours? Please discuss.

More on Honeck

the Honeck performances, well they were truly amazing! I may well order the CDs but for now I’ll have to make do with copies of your broadcast. He does so much with the music that I want to listen to them again, once is not enough! Surely the best Beet 7 for a very long while – staggering finale. In fact all the performances were a revelation. He makes the Pittsburgh sound like the very  best European orchestra.  Why on earth has he been neglected, but well done you for bringing him to our attention. You must have had some great feedback – I did hear some of the listeners comments.

Manfred Honeck – the new Carlos Kleiber?

The first time I heard Manfred Honeck conduct was some years ago … as I recall it was an insubstantial piece but straightaway I detected the hand of someone who knows has to mould  and shape a phrase, keep rhythms firm, textures transparent … do all the thing that say, Abbado, knew how to do yet with an added quota of individuality. Then I heard his Pittsburgh Mahler 4 and was literally blown away – the impact of the ‘Gates of Heaven’ episode in the slow movement quite simply upstages any other available version.

Please do try and catch a whole range of Honeck’s recordings from next Monday (23rd November) on BBC Radio 3’s Essential Classics (from 9 am on weekdays), mostly from Pittsburgh. These include  Bruckner 4, Death and Transfiguration (and music by Johann Strauss), Beethoven 7, the 34-minute first movement of Mahler 3 (no time for the whole work I’m afraid), the Jenufa Suite and the Benedictus from from Braunfels’ wonderful Grosse Messe. These are truly exceptional recordings and I’d love your to read reactions. How wonderful to be able to rave about a conductor who is alive and vigorously beating time rather than resting peaceably in the vaults!

Incidentally Honeck is conducting the LSO at the Barbican in London on 19th November – the New World, Ravel’s G major Concerto (with Helene Grimaud) and … the Jenufa Suite. I don’t think I can make it but if you can please report back.