CD Review – the live experience

Posted on September 29th, 2012

It was good being back in Radio 3’s busy continuity suite this morning. It’s been a while. My CD Review contributions are more often than not scripted and pre-recorded these days and there really isn’t anything quite like the buzz of a live encounter “off the cuff” to concentrate even a seasoned broadcaster’s mind. More and more now the programme is handling its batches of new releases in just this way – and when you’ve got an out and out enthusiast (we used to call them “record nutters”) like Andrew McGregor in the presenter’s chair the “live” option is to my mind the way to go.

It all begins with an email or phone call from the producer’s office – in this case Clive Portbury – offering the gig and suggesting even at this early stage a short-list of new releases from which we might select our final six the hour-long spot. Clive knows my repertoire strengths and specialities and he isn’t likely to be offering me the latest in Renaissance choral music discs. So in this batch there were two new accounts of Mahler’s First Symphony (always fun to have an immediate comparison to consider), Prokofiev’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Bruckner’s Eighth, a coupling of the Brahms and Berg Violin Concertos, and something I brought to the table because I had reviewed it for Gramophone magazine and thought it absolutely outstanding – a couple of the Stravinsky and Martin Violin Concertos featuring the young Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. A cracking disc.

When I listen I make copious notes which then become a leaner, meaner, “skeleton script” which is the basis of my contribution. I’ve taken to using a more detailed written outline in the studio because when time is tight (as it always is no matter how generous the speech-to-music ratio) one can get awfully woolly if one doesn’t have the right words and catchphrases at one’s fingertips. I choose all the illustrations, too, and that can be more time consuming than you would think.

Being a live show things can go wrong – as they did with one illustration this morning. Having cued up the first movement development of Prokofiev’s Sixth with a choice of words that I thought did the business, on comes the last movement – the absolute antithesis of what I had described. Andrew loads his own CDs (when I hosted the breakfast show years ago I had a grams operator, panel operator, AND producer at my disposal) – that’s a lot to be thinking about while hosting a live show. But punters like that it is live, I think, and after a straight forward admission that he had cued the wrong extract I simply said what I wanted to say but after rather than before the event.

As you might expect we chat about what we are hearing while the extracts are playing and often that throws up new ideas. Andrew and I decide who will “come out” of the illustration (if me, I wait for a quick nod to make sure he has opened my fader) and if we’ve agreed to go off on a brief tangent we can do so mindful that we may pay the price with time running short later. The producer keeps a running time check on precisely when each illustration goes on and comes off and today we decided to drop one of the Mahler illustrations as we’d happily “spread” a little. It meant extra time before the final illustration but by then we were so relaxed we were happy to wing it.

I hope it sounded sharp and reasonably coherent. It’s a very inexact science being “off the cuff” live but the immediacy more than compensates for the odd glitch or infelicity.

I had a good time and because it’s always good to leave one job with the offer of another I was delighted when the producer asked if I was available to do the live “Critics Choice” Christmas Special on 15 December. Stay tuned.

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One comment on “CD Review – the live experience
  1. Sandy Matheson says:

    I enjoyed your contribution this morning, and will check out the Skride Stravinsky/Martin disc, which sounded terrific. I’m glad that you enjoyed the Fischer Mahler 1 so much. I’ve been looking forward to it since hearing that amazing Proms performance last year. Whenever I’ve heard them they sound as if they are playing the most important gig of their season – they don’t seem to do ‘routine’. I heard them doing Mahler 5 in Edinburgh; for once the last movement sounded genuinely joyful, rather than sounding as if the orchestra was hanging on like grim death. I can’t wait for their recording of that! Best wishes, Sandy Matheson

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