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Artillery Row

Against the relegation of Record Review

Why is Radio 3 mistreating one of its greatest assets?

The unacknowledged heart of Radio 3 is not to be found in its long, often meaningless, sequences of alternating announcement and track, nor in the concerts it broadcasts or weekly evensong, important though they are. It is to be found in its vital, sunlit accompaniment to Saturday mornings, Record Review, a fixture in Radio 3’s schedule for as long as anyone can remember.

It exists, superficially, to review recordings of classical music — and if that was all it did, it would still be invaluable and without rival. But the real importance of the programme is that under the guise of asking what makes a good recording of a work, it asks what that work truly is. Its decades-old series, “Building a Library”, in which a guest reviewer compares endless recordings of the same work before declaring their recommendation, is of some practical use, but the greater interest is in what the process of comparison tells us about the work. And what it tells us is regularly profound.

Since 1998 its presenter has been Andrew McGregor and, like the programme itself, he is woefully under-celebrated. His warmth and conversational style are too obvious to require comment, and to emphasise them risks selling him short: he is anything but a lightweight employed only for his charm. His responses to the music he plays are those of a man who understands wide stretches of the repertoire from within: he knows orchestral and chamber music as a violinist; sacred music as a former countertenor in a cathedral choir and organist; and he has been a recording engineer. And because he has been inside the music, we enter into it too. Each piece of music is not pointed at like an exhibit behind glass, but inhabited by broadcaster and listener alike.

McGregor’s own critical judgments are thoughtful, and expressed with an unfailing gentleness as well as clarity, but perhaps his greatest strength as a presenter lies in his capacity to elicit the judgments of others. Week after week through sympathetic dialogue he brings out the best in his interviewees. The listener is invited into the senior common room to listen to a conversation at once deeply civilised and devoid of pretension, in which people count the ways in which they love or struggle to love works and performances. No money could buy entry to such a dialogue, but no money is needed. Entrance is free.

And that is why I say Record Review is the heart of Radio 3: time and again it is the place where, pace Beecham, the British, or some of them, demonstrate they love the music, and not just the noise it makes; time and again it gets to the heart not just of performances but works. And its presenter is a broadcaster to be spoken of in the same breath as those other conversational geniuses of the airwaves: Alistair Cooke, Nick Clarke (also underrated and now mainly forgotten), Jonathan Agnew.

A major aspect of the programme’s character is its place in the schedule. It is Saturday and the listener is quite at their leisure; better, it is 9 o’clock and the day stretches out before them full of possibility. The energy of the beginning of a free day is everywhere to be felt in the programme and ideally suited to an exploration of unfamiliar works and recordings.

the new controller of Radio 3, late of Classic FM, has decided move it to the doldrums

For the cynic, then, it will be no surprise to hear that, given that the programme is indispensable, the broadcaster brilliant and the timeslot ideal, the new controller of Radio 3, late of Classic FM, has decided move it to the doldrums, drowning it in the lassitude of a Saturday afternoon. Easter Eve will be the last time Record Review appears at 9 am in the Saturday morning schedule.

I have no interest in being caustic about anyone. Doubtless Radio 3 controllers do what they think is right and we are all more dictated to by the currents of the present moment than we should wish to admit. In any event I do not pretend to know his thinking and motives. But I suspect, although I cannot know, that caught up somewhere in the decision to break up the marriage of timeslot and programme was a  prevalent, mistaken and destructive understanding of ‘inclusivity’.

You see, on one conception of inclusivity, Record Review is not terribly inclusive. McGregor assumes that his listeners will know what a mass is, what a BWV number is, something of the lives of the great composers, and so on. He couldn’t really do otherwise without destroying the flow and tone of the programme. And not everyone is equipped with such knowledge, and so — it can be asked — is the programme not exclusive, alienating for those without the rare privilege of a good grounding in such matters? Doesn’t such a programme frankly need moving well away from a prominent slot on a Saturday morning?

On this argument, it should be replaced by something easily accessible from which stumbling blocks have been removed. The process of design for such a programme would avoid problematic value judgments about what makes a great composer or performance. It would begin — like market research — with the putative listener. The question would be what they wanted to hear and the design of the programme would answer it, so that they could be included in it. This is surely democratic radio, something driven by the preferences of the people rather than the elite of the musical senior common room. Its success can be measured by the number of listeners it attracts.

The strange thing about such inclusivity, which one might associate with the cultural left, is that it sounds remarkably like the thinking of the economic right. If the question ceases to be, what is most worthy, what is most beautiful (because such judgments are subjective and who dares claim a better view than anyone else), and it becomes instead, what will be most approachable to most people, how does that differ from the mindset of the marketer? What is the point of public service broadcasting of music at all?

Anyone with a radio set or on the Internet in this country may listen and be caught up the conversation

Record Review embodies a wholly different conception of inclusivity. It is a programme of musical criticism, and implicit in the very status of the critic is the belief that some listen better than others, that some people have an ear better attuned to beauty and meaning. Implicit also is the belief that beauty is something we can actually talk about, not a purely subjective matter of which any discussion would necessarily be pointless. It follows from these beliefs that the rest of us have something to learn, and that process will not involve simply giving us what we like, but requiring us to listen to music with which we struggle, and demanding we listen better. What it does not involve is building a graven image of us, like a Tik-Tok algorithm, and then manipulating us, feeding our desires so as to persuade us to keep the radio on. Unlike the situation that applies in the case of a market-orientated programme, in the case of Record Review there is no buyer and seller, no manipulator and manipulated, only parties to a conversation. Anyone with a radio set or on the Internet in this country may listen and be caught up the conversation. And if the references in that conversation are obscure to begin with, time and attention will make them meaningful. That, I suggest, is truly democratic radio.

I trust the programme will survive the move — if anyone can sustain it, McGregor can. But for as long as we hold to present notions of inclusivity so learned a programme will be under threat, however lightly it wears its learning. In the meantime I cannot help but see the relegation of Record Review as a moment of serious cultural, and also personal, loss.

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