• What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?

Oh dear, Auntie Beeb is at it again.  She’s asking us to sit comfortably in our antimacassar Queen Anne chairs, our tooth mug by our side and a cup of … well, you get the picture.  Welcome to Radio 3’s new morning ‘not-drive-time’ replacement for Classical Collection.  With its aura of chocolate boxes and nice gift shops, that title wasn’t much to shout about either.  Now, make way for … (‘Drumroll’, among other symphonies) … Essential Classics.

What a stroke of genius.  It’s fresh, original, unforgettable.  Others will soon catch on, mind.  I can see the future: fascinating CDs and downloads called Essential Vivaldi, Essential Mozart, Essential Mendelssohn.  We might even get, wait for it, Essential Ravel or Essential, Essential Classics.  And, dare I think the unthinkable?  How about Essential World Music or Essential Classic Jazz (a double hit there, surely)?

Say the word over and over and it becomes meaningless.  Actually, it’s pretty meaningless anyway.  Essential for whom, for what?  I believe that the title is nothing but a cynical ploy to be seen to try to attract less-demanding listeners.  Are radio listeners that dumb?  Radio 3 has a robust following, so does it think that its survival depends on some putative untapped constituency with few musical brain cells between the ears?  Seriously, who these days is going to be won over by such a title?  Not the younger listener, that’s for sure.  In any event, I don’t think that Radio 3 really believes in titles like this.  Classical Collection frequently goes beyond expectations, so why shouldn’t Essential Classics?  It had jolly well better do, otherwise it will lose listeners.

There is so much twaddle that accompanies schedule changes.  Radio 3 says: ‘The extended length of this programme will allow for longer pieces of repertoire to be played and will include, for example, a performance of the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation’.  To take the latter point first: Classical Collection presents the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation already – so what’s new?  As to ‘longer pieces of repertoire’, there are plenty of examples in recent Classical Collection playlists of works lasting 20’-30’.  Less than two weeks ago, it  broadcast Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, which comes in at c. 50’.  So another piece of promotional tosh.

Yet there may be hope for those of us who like a challenge or something ‘inessential’ in our morning (or anytime) listening.  I’m thinking of a wonderful use of my least favourite word in the marketing of an Olympia CD back in 1993.  It was of music by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (OCD 385) and was clearly piggybacking on the phenomenal international success of Elektra Nonesuch’s CD the previous year of the Pole’s Third Symphony, ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).

What better way to encourage sales than by calling the CD  The Essential Górecki Orchestral and Choral Music.  Recordings Selected by the Composer?  Brilliant.  Though I’m damn sure that Górecki didn’t choose the headline title.  Pity the poor enthusiast for the Third Symphony who bought this CD expecting more of the same, because isn’t that what was being implied?  If the enthusiast listened to music from the comfort of a well-upholstered and well-protected armchair, then a life-threatening shock was in store.

Why?  Because the five works on The Essential Górecki were nothing like the Third Symphony.  There was the terse, Webernian Epitafium (1958), the explosively avant-garde Scontri (Collisions, 1960), the gritty Genesis II (1962), the Messiaenic Refrain (1965) and the modal v. serial-atonal Old Polish Music (1969).

If, on the other hand, the listener was open-eared, unconcerned with mantras about ‘core repertoire’, a wonderful, mould-shattering surprise awaited.  Because, to appropriate the word ‘essential’, this music from 1958-69 was and is representative of the composer’s creative drive and imagination and an essential component in an understanding of his musical journey.

Olympia’s marketing was either a cynical move or an inspired hijacking – of a stale, tired, forgettable term – whose subversive intention was to stimulate individual hearing buds and catch the listener unawares.  If that’s what Radio 3 has in mind for Essential Classics, but isn’t telling, than hurrah for that.

Listen out from 9 a.m. on Monday, 12 September.

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