Classic’s birthday: an ear for the moderns – what really happened

In an otherwise excellent article on the birth of Classic FM for The Spectator, my fellow Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny – previously a colleague on Classic – states that when talking repertoire Classic’s powerhouse founder Michael Bukht insisted on  ‘nothing you’d want to switch off’. Mozart was king, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak — yes, please. Bartok, Stravinsky and Britten were to be treated with suspicion. And absolutely nothing contemporary, thanks very much.’

Well that wasn’t quite the case, at least not in practice; in fact, in those days all the major Classic FM hits were contemporary, and never more so than with the very first, Henryk Gorécki’s Third Symphony which swept the nation more potently than any large-scale contemporary piece before or since. And this is how it happened. From the first week of Cfm’s existence I co-hosted a show called Classic Verdict with a mate, the much missed Keith Shadwick (who tragically died back in 2008). Every week we’d choose a ‘Sure Shot’ which Paul Gambaccini picked up the following day (on his Saturday Show). First up was Gorécki 3, and that was the very first piece that marked the station out as bringing the world of great music into the nation’s consciousness. Much as I’m devoted to Radio 3, they had never managed it, and neither had any other radio station. But the combination of new-born Classic and Gorécki made people realise how a contemporary symphony could be beautiful, original, relevant and in a sense life-changing. The proof of Gorécki’s integrity, if such were needed, is in the nature of his Fourth – a different beast entirely. Not for him a profitable bandwagon.

There’s another twist to this tale. A month before Classic launched Johnny Black had asked me to step into his place on Frank Bough’s LBC show, bring along a trio of classics to review. That same Gorécki recording (Dawn Upshaw, London Sinfonietta/David Zinman, Nonesuch) had just landed on my mat and I took it along. As I left the building, a receptionist rushed up to me and asked, ‘what was that CD just played? … our phone lines are jammed with people wanting to know’! So it was evidently the right piece at the right time.

Beyond Gorécki came Gavin Bryars’ Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Philips/Decca) and Officium with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM), both of them sure shots that ‘shot’ right to the top of the charts. Among other impactful choices were De Stilj by Andriessen, though Bukht balked at its aggression. And yet he had a broader musical mind than many people think – he allowed me a series of ‘Contemporary and Classics’ and an historical series ‘Our Musical Yesterdays’. So, Relaxing wasn’t always the main agenda! Comments please.

Bach before Gould: Gieseking’s your man

Recorded in 1950, Walter Gieseking’s Bach series for Saarbrücken Radio promotes a lightness of touch, elegance and emotional engagement that anticipated Glenn Gould’s epoch-making Goldberg Variations of 1955 (Sony). Deutsche Grammophon have just released a 7-cd set (479 7362)  that covers the whole of the Well-tempered Clavier, the Six Partitas and French Ouverture, the Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, the Inventions and Sinfonias and other works, adding the Schumann Concerto in a wartime Berlin Philharmonic recording under Wilhelm Furtwängler

The nimble, deftly lilting ‘scherzo’ from the Third Partita in A minor BWV 827 should give you a good idea of what to expect