Pop justice

Since when did Radio 1 become so nice?

"We're focusing on families tonight," says Aled Hayden Jones. It's Radio 1's Relationships Campaign Week, "and there are lots of people queueing to get on air who are arguing with their parents. Paul - do you have a message?"

“Yes," says Paul urgently. "Appreciate what you've got. I never got to say to my dad how much I loved him."

“God," says Gemma Cairney in the studio, "now we're all sitting here thinking about our dads. OK. Hello, Zoe - how can we help?"

“I just want to get some advice on my mum and dad getting a divorce. Erm, yeah." Zoe has the smallest voice I've ever heard. "I'm scared. Will it go to court? Who will I stay with? I'm nervous of what to say to them. I've only told a few friends. Well, a couple, almost."

A state of grace overtakes Gemma. "Everything you have taken for granted has been taken away," she persuades, "but your feelings do matter, Zoe. Your parents may not love each other any more but they love you to bits. I know, I know - it's terrifying."

“Yes, it is," peeps Zoe. "Thanks."

Cut to Usher for a breather. I don't think I can take any more of this. Radio 1 has never been so nice. It's weird. This station was dire - I'm talking right down to the poozwack - but recently, in the late evenings, it's like it's completely accepted its innocence. Consider the other night, when two of its DJs, Jaymo and Andy George, travelled to Warsaw to report on the club scene there. "It's super loud in here!" said Andy, as though surprised, at a festival.

“Welcome," laughed a sexy woman. "We have hot music, Polish vowdka . . ." There was a silence as your correspondent visualised Andy wearing a school blazer, his hair greased into an approximation of spikes, and Jaymo sitting on a chair, his feet barely grazing the floor.

“We are prepared," said Andy seriously. "We're gonna be meeting the cool kids, the artists, the trendsetters . . ." They hurried back to their hotel in a cab. ("Basically we just jumped in a taxi. This is bonkers!")

The following day they go to meet a musician called Norbert at a popular eatery. "It's a capitalist/communist style of café," drawls Norbert, rather unhelpfully. It strikes him, looking at Andy and Jaymo, that he might have to clarify further. "Alcohol," he says. "An old school smell." One imagined the too-long ash on the end of Norbert's cigarette falling and hitting the tiles. He sounds like someone short, and mad about it all the time.

“How has the country changed in 20 years?" asks Andy, getting out his jotter.

“Oh, it's much better," allows Norbert. "Before, we had no club music. No vinyl."

“Wow," breathes Andy, sympathetic.

“Oh my goodness!" interrupts Jaymo, looking at his newly arrived plate. "Am I gonna like it, Norbert? What is it?"

“Meat and gelatine."

“I'm killing it with lemon!" says Jaymo. Later, they arrange to meet Norbert at a club. "Be there or be square!" says Jaymo in a voice
so sweet it ought to be liquidised and rubbed on malevolent molars.

“Hmm," returns Norbert, snootily.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis