BBC Radio 3
“Atonal isn’t a word you’d expect to hear in association with Vaughan Williams but here we are . . .” Just a few minutes into another brilliant episode of Discovering Music (7 November, 8.20pm) about Vaughan William’s seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antartica, and the presenter Stephen Johnson is in his stride, speaking in a way that is hard to render on the page but that sounds incredibly natural and yet also like every other word is italicised.
The ten-year-old programme is a profoundly effective show and tell: extracts from a decent recording of a piece of classical music are stopped occasionally for analysis, using phrases such as, “We can sense a deepening here,” and, “Remember we already heard some evocative sounds like that in a previous movement.” Sinfonia Antartica made a wonderful subject, sounding so absorbed in the freakish, almost alien textures of layered, ancient snow, with lots of grieving harp and piano (“It suggests ice so cold it’s almost dry”).
On a good week, Discovering Music can be the best thing on Radio 3. I mentally tuck into a waitress trolley weighed down with oodles of ham and cheese whenever the show starts. But is it about to be axed? I’m afraid that’s the rumour. Already collapsed in length and inched into a 20-minute concert interval in the last round of cuts, its future never looked good but . . . Oh, such a simple, inexpensive programme! One record, one script. Why lose it?
And why, more to the point, these terrible numbers? Radio 3 fell to the bottom of the network radio league in terms of budget this year, receiving an increase of just £300,000, where Radio 1 managed to grab £3.3m. Even more worrying is that the BBC Trust recently described Radio 3 listeners as a “a subset of the Radio 4 audience”. Never was a phrase more designed to make people feel like the losing crew at the end of the boat race. The disdain contained in that phrase feels absolute. It suggests a license to dismantle not just certain music specialism programmes or even speech-based programmes on Radio 3 but possibly, somewhere down the line, once it’s been squashed to a kind of Classic FM, an entire station, without so much as a single desperate dash across town or a breathless conference in a lift. It really is ice so cold it’s almost dry.