Copland and a boiled egg

I’m a big fan of the BBC Radio Three ‘Breakfast’ programme, which goes out every morning from 7am, and, except for Saturday when it ends at 9am to make way for CD Review, lasts for a full three hours. I usually manage to listen to most of the programme, in between chivvying my son off to school and organising myself for the day. Sometimes, I “do a Glenn Gould” and leave the radio playing in the kitchen while I am practising; thus, my current peregrinations of Liszt are to the accompaniment of the comforting hum of the radio from the other end of my house.

By around 7.00am, I’ve usually had enough of ‘argumental’ John Humphrys on the Today programme on Radio Four (though I do have a fondness for Evan Davis and Sarah Whatshername), and as soon as Other Half leaves for work, it is with relief that I turn over to Radio Three. The opening piece of the programme is usually something cheery, rousing and Baroque, and each day the running order of the programme is largely the same: “great pieces, great performances – and a few surprises”, as it claims on the programme’s webpage. In recent years, it appears the programme has borrowed some ideas about format from Classic FM to become more popular, and certain pieces do seem to be on a loop, recurring about once every 2-3 weeks. Having said that, there is always a very good selection of music, mostly classical, with some titbits of jazz and world music thrown in for good measure.

My favourite presenter is Sara Mohr-Pietsch, whose voice is just about perfect for radio, and who endeared herself to me not long ago when she said that Bach was the perfect way to begin the day, and that she could happily listen to three hours continuous Bach in the morning – as I could. Rob Cowan can irritate me: his strangely “smiley” voice can sound inappropriate when introducing very serious or sombre music, and he also has “favourites” which come round with alarming regularity, namely, Smetana’s Overture from ‘The Bartered Bride’ (this morning!), anything by Buxtehude (the performance of which is always preceded by an anecdote about how Bach walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck to meet him), Saint-Saens’s ‘Tarantella’, and Coupland’s ‘Rodeo’ Suite. And I’m afraid my heart sinks whenever Rob says “and now here’s something from my rucksack”. I imagine him fossicking around in the bottom of a grubby old khaki knapsack, and pulling out a CD from which he has to remove sticky old toffee wrappers, loose Polo mints, and that strange fluff-grit mix that always seems to live at the bottom of a bag….

I have discovered music through the programme, and have often gone on to look up an artist, group or album after hearing an extract over my cornflakes. I would never have found the wonderful early music group L’Arpeggiata, for example. The programme has also introduced me to new repertoire, and I regularly hear piano music and think “ooh, I’ll learn that”. Recent examples include Delius’s ‘Scherzando’ from the Three Preludes (which I abandoned because of the awkward arpeggios), Alkan’s ‘Barcarolle’, Op. 65, and a Spanish dance by Granados. A few days ago, I heard a fun, jazz take on Bach called ‘Bach Goes to Town’ by Alec Templeton, a piece I learnt in my teens and would love to revisit. Sometimes, I even “join in” with the programme, sending a text with a comment on a piece or a request to hear something. And unlike Classic FM, the flow of the programme is not interrupted with loud and febrile advertising jingles every ten minutes or so.

On Tuesdays, after the 8am news slot, the Specialist Classical Chart is broadcast. There was much wringing of hands and pulling of eyes by Radio Three purists last autumn when it was first announced. I admit I was sceptical, fearing more shades of Classic FM and its “best of” and “your favourites” lists etc, but the Specialist Classical chart is, largely, serious, and interesting. It is also available as a podcast.

In the old days, Radio Three was considered very rarefied and esoteric, the home of hushed, reverential tones, and the station for serious classical music afficionados. Today, its remit is far more popular, and while it has received criticism for this from certain quarters, the award of Station of the Year in 2009, the radio equivalent of the Oscars, is proof of Radio Three’s success. Of course, there are serious programmes, for serious music lovers, but there is a wide range of other material, from drama and literature, to world music and jazz, choral and early music. Another of my favourite programmes is Late Junction (from 11.15pm, weeknights) which offers a truly eclectic mix of music – again, a great place to make new discoveries. All in all, Radio Three is a lively mix of music and culture, and a pleasant foil for Radio Four (of which I am also an avid fan: wild horses could not keep me from my daily fix of The Archers!).

So, tune in, if you haven’t before, and give it a whirl: your eyes and mind are in for a cultural treat!

Radio Three homepage

See and hear l’Arpeggiata in performance


  1. Oh wow, L’Arpeggiata are brilliant! I echo the above comment entirely; and thank you for introducing a reader to them 🙂

    I find the Classic FM adverts rather annoying, but as a relative latecomer to all sorts of repertoire I appreciate the fact that it exposes me to the ‘standards’ – and I know that every time I tune in it will be playing classical music; I often find that when I can tune in to the radio, Radio Three is playing music that’s a bit far out of my current tastes. That said, I find that on the occasion I’ve managed to tune into a classical programme they do play more … ‘non-standard’ pieces which is always good – no matter how ‘lovely’ certain pieces are, they can be overplayed! (Plus they’ve interviewed Voces8 and reviewed their CD, which pleased me greatly.)

    • Yes, I love l’Arpeggiata – their music is so uplifting. I agree about Classic FM and all the adverts, but on the other hand, if it brings classical repertoire to more people, that’s got to be good. And Radio 3 is much more accessible than it was 5-10 years ago 🙂

  2. I love the energy and enthusiasim of the players of L’Arpeggiata in this foot-tapping Ciaccona. And how they grin and nod to each other – clearly thoroughly enjoying the music. Their leader, Christina Pluhar, is the lady with the long auburn hair, playing the out-sized lute…..

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