A week listening to … Radio 3

It can feel a bit National Trust, but where else could you find Finnish opera and Brian Eno treated with equal reverence?

There is disquiet among regular BBC Radio 3 listeners, who have accused the station of "dumbing down" to appeal to a broader audience. As someone who has managed to ignore the station for its entire 44-year existence, scared off by the prospect of 15-hour operas and my general classical music ignorance, I am definitely not the best person to judge whether it is becoming less challenging. (Please do weigh in with your superior knowledge below). But I might be just the man to test its broad appeal. So I spent a week ignoring the rest of radioland and listened to nothing but Radio 3.

The first target of listeners' unrest is softly spoken Breakfast host Petroc Trelawny, who has the kind of accentless accent and measured demeanour you might find reassuring if he were the captain of your EasyJet flight to Bodrum, or your gran's oncologist. Here, however, it is deployed to bring us amusing stories from the Telegraph and Daily Mail.

Trelawny's gentle upbeat presence has jarred with some, who perhaps regard the intrusions of DJs as an unnecessary vulgarity – or as Trelawny put it when introducing Bach's Sixth Brandeburg Concerto on Friday morning, a bit "below stairs". I rather liked it, but I did feel as if I was locked in a National Trust gift shop; a firewalled world where the only aspects of the 21st century allowed in are bland news items and souvenir fudge.

Breakfast is followed by another programme that prickles traditionalist sensibilities – Essential Classics. "Essential" is the kind of label Classic FM would give a golden hour of relaxing tunes from TV commercials and period dramas (which is exactly what it is), but it could just as easily be a range of biscuits. Programmes such as this, populated by listener requests and CD charts, are evidence of the station's creeping populism, say the critics.

Unlike any other radio station, however, Radio 3 remains a place where you can lose yourself in music; enjoying vast oceans of time without trails for forthcoming programmes, vox pops, endless mentions of Twitter or advertisements for Autoglass. Romantically, I had imagined that, like the scene in Shawshank Redemption where Andy smuggles The Marriage of Figaro on to the prison speakers, Radio 3 would bring me music so beautiful I would be stopped in my uneducated tracks. And I was. Twice.

Sibelius' Symphony Number 5 had me pulling over to the side of the road to hold back the tears – admittedly largely because of it reminded me of Since Yesterday by Strawberry Switchblade, which steals its best bit – while Idyl by Russian romantic Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov added a moving poignancy to the construction of a cheese and ham sandwich that you just don't get when your soundtrack is David Guetta.

Last Wednesday's In Concert featured 90 minutes of Finnish and German opera. As with every concert I heard on Radio 3, the presenter who popped up between movements and spoke in hushed tones, like a posh snooker commentator, remarked how appreciative the audience was. But as someone more familiar with rock gigs and football matches, I wondered how they knew – I didn't hear any wolf whistles or whoops, just polite ripples of conservative applause.

Deeper into the schedule I loved Late Junction, which has a coverage of world and folk music liberal and wild enough to include both Brian Eno and Joni Mitchell alongside obscure wonders from Ethiopia and Looney Tunes composer Raymond Scott. It's one of those magnificent radio programmes where you won't like everything on it but you will always discover something new and amazing. Jazz Line-Up on Sunday evening was equally grown up and revelational, treating its subject matter with a reverence that serious music fans are starved of elsewhere.

The weirdest thing was Russ Abbott – the 80s comedian and recent star of Last Of The Summer Wine – starring in Glass Chair Chair Glass on Sunday night, a play that imagined a meeting between comic magician Tommy Cooper and absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco. Abbot's impression was spot on, but what jarred was a succession of exaggerated "ooh la la" accents that wouldn't have been out of place in 'Allo 'Allo! I didn't know Radio 3 did drama, l wish I still didn't.

I will return to Radio 3 – particularly Late Junction – but I'm uncertain what to make of their moves to become more mainstream. What do you think of it?

Contributor

Johnny Dee

The GuardianTramp

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