Fine presenters: Classic FM’s Catherine Bott and John Suchet
On Radio

I'm a Classic FM convert

Ignore the snobs, trip the light (music) fantastic and bask in the shameless joy of Classic FM

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It is easy to patronise Classic FM. People have been looking the other way for 30 years, and congratulating themselves on their refinement. “Easy listening,” they scoff, which is partly true. You don’t tune in expecting to hear a blast of Busoni.

Only partly true, though. Countless hours of listening during the year of plague brought considerable pleasure, and it has hardened into a habit. Unfashionable or not, Classic FM deserves a fairer hearing.

Some things should be said at once. Dvorak’s cello concerto is a great work, and Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a masterpiece. But those composers wrote many other lovely things, which listeners would surely enjoy if they were given an extended opportunity. Also, it is not compulsory to play the Enigma Variations and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis every other day. Why not introduce people to other prime cuts of Elgar and Vaughan Williams? The piano quintet, for example, and In The Fen Country. We don’t hear those works as often as we might.

This superb journalist is obviously having a whale of a time, and he carries the listeners with him

Not all the presenters are properly equipped for the task, and there is no excuse for breaking in as soon as a performance ends. Music comes from silence, and returns to silence. A respectful pause is necessary.

Then there is the sad case of David Mellor. A true lover of classical music, and a capable broadcaster in his time, he now addresses listeners so vaguely, with so many hesitations and peculiar diversions, it is as though he keeps one eye fixed on the race card. If he’s bored — and he’s certainly not fully engaged — then he should let somebody else have a go.

John Humphrys isn’t bored. His Sunday afternoon show, which comes just before Mellor picks out winners in the 2.30 at Plumpton, is notable for a child like enthusiasm. He even gives us a weekly poem and, even more remarkably, it isn’t always by Dylan Thomas. This superb journalist is obviously having a whale of a time, and he carries the listeners with him. “Xander” Armstrong’s morning show on weekdays also fills three hours with good cheer.

Two presenters excel. Catherine Bott, formerly of Radio 3, reveals each Sunday afternoon the qualities that station, obsessed with a strange need for regional voices, would do well to reclaim. She speaks (not “delivers”) her script with clarity, wit and an expertise that comes from being a fine singer in her youth. Compare her clearly enunciated lines with the verbal sludge that falls from the mouths of the ladies who have replaced her at Radio 3 (“Brams”, “Mairler”, “Wairgner”), and then try to say “this is progress” with a straight face. It’s a tough one.

John Suchet’s evening concert, between 8pm and 10, offers the best reason for listening to Classic FM. His unaffected love of music, flavoured by an understanding of just how much information it is necessary to impart, makes him an ideal companion.
He plays the old favourites, of course, but by smuggling in composers who may be unfamiliar to many listeners, he also does valuable missionary work. He’s not shy of playing light music, either. Eric Coates and Ronald Binge appear alongside Ludwig and Franz, which can only be a good thing.

Classic FM does not have the range of Radio 3, which, in its presentation of live concerts and music related features, is often outstanding. But it’s not supposed to have. By bringing great music to people who might like to understand more about an art form they know little about, it performs a noble service, as opposed to Tom Service, Radio 3’s champion long distance waffler. Give ’em time, and they might get around to Busoni.

It was a day of delight, and no other station could do it. This is what Radio 3 is for

When the clocks went back Radio 3 revealed its most glittering colours, and its dullest, in Capturing Twilight. The bad, sadly, was Nuit Blanche, which purported to tell the story of the night through the eyes of writers and self proclaimed “artists” who prefer to labour while others sleep.

One bore, who identified as “a queer, trans woman” imagined that applying graffiti to properties in Dundee was essential for her “emotional well being”. The night, and the way people live and work at night, is a subject rich in potential. This was a missed opportunity.

The good, though, was superb. In Music for the Hours, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars marked the Divine Service of the Benedictine liturgy, Matins at 1am to Compline at 9.45pm, by singing great devotional music from Hildegard of Bingen (above) to Arvo Pärt. It was a day of delight, and no other station could do it. This is what Radio 3 is for.

Andrew Martin, the novelist, supplied the other twilight treat, though his five talks for that evening ritual, The Essay, concentrated on “the lost hours”, not merely those when owls go “woo woo!”. With considerable wit, he explored elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, “the lost hours of the afternoon”, and cocktail hour. Had anybody, he wondered, ever been invited formally to “a cocktail party”? He hadn’t, and he’s not alone.

These were admirably crafted talks, enhanced by Martin’s well modulated Yorkshire voice, a world, never mind a Riding, away from the varnished speech of Ian McMillan, Radio 3’s resident Yorkie. If you want to know how to write a script for the radio, or read one, Martin’s your man.

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