The season of Advent, for most children, means anticipation, gleeful waiting, the counting down of days. But after a certain age the build-up to Christmas changes its nature, becomes more like anxious preparation. It can, though, be thought of as a time of reflection. Radio 3’s Christmas Around Europe has for years nourished that feeling by taking us on a leisurely, day-long musical tour around the continent, usually on the last Sunday before Christmas. It’s a chance to step back from the frenetic fuss and wander in the mind, as the music plays, to other times and distant places, to take oneself beyond the present, or rather into another kind of present.
This year the programme (produced by Ellie Mant and available on iPlayer until mid-January) begins with a live broadcast from Helsinki of organ and wind music, followed by a trip to Vienna for a concert of traditional Christmas songs. Other highlights are a performance from Bulgaria of an oratorio by Dimitar Nenov (who died in 1953), a new work by the Czech composer Ondrej Kyas performed in Brno, a Bach concert in Nuremberg and Handel from Frankfurt. The day ends with a sumptuous six-organ, three-choir work performed in a Portuguese monastery. It could be seen as a refreshing antidote to the current conversations about Europe; nothing political, just the sense of something shared.
Such broadcasts are made possible by the European Broadcasting Union, which was set up in 1950 to promote cultural activities across frontiers, not to forge union but to celebrate diversity. The Eurovision Song Contest is its most famous progeny, but there’s much more to the EBU than that annual glitzy jamboree. Currently Radio 3 shares its output of Afternoon Concert, Through the Night, Early Music Late and Opera on 3 with its continental neighbours via the EBU. In return listeners here in the UK have access to musical performances from the Baltic to the Bosphorus. Many of them will be live broadcasts, providing that frisson of connection, of being aware that as you listen in a rainy London suburb someone just like you in the far reaches of snowbound Finland might also be tuned in.
‘It’s the largest concert hall in the world,’ says Miikka Maunula of Yleisradio in Helsinki, chair of the EBU’s Radio Music Group, which for 50 years has been organising these live concerts across the continent. The first of them, on 27 November 1967, was conducted by Benjamin Britten and featured the Amadeus Quartet and Peter Pears. As Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, said in a passionate speech at the 50th anniversary concert last month, these performances, by leading musicians from across Europe (and crossing genres too, from baroque to Brazilian salsa via jazz and swing), reach millions and provide opportunities for anyone and everyone to experience the best music for free (or, if you must, for the cost of the licence fee). That anniversary concert, for example, was broadcast live by radio stations in 33 countries across Europe, many millions simultaneously experiencing a beautifully limpid rendition of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto by one of Radio 3’s New Generation artists, Pavel Kolesnikov.
This international music exchange was instigated by the BBC producer Hans Keller, who came to the UK after surviving detention and torture by the Nazis during the second world war. As he wrote about that first concert season, ‘No doubt there will be listeners… who will misuse tonight’s concert — use it as background music, talk into it,’ but there will also be ‘listeners, all over Europe, who will be more passionately involved in the concert than one or the other listeners here in the hall’. Radio, as he saw it, could be used as a means to create a trans-European conversation.
If you need to find an escape from too much sherry and mince pies, Iceland’s Dark Lullabies on Radio 4 (produced by Neil McCarthy) might just be the answer as it takes us to the far north for another kind of Christmas. There’s a freezing wind blowing, night is falling after just four hours of daylight, bells are ringing eerily in the distance. At such a time, the imagination grows wilder, says the Icelandic poet Andri Snaer Magnason. There may now be traffic jams in Reykjavik, neon lights and blinking trees, but the old, dark stories of ogres, trolls and speaking cows still linger.
He meets another Icelandic poet in a bar who tells him the story of an Ikea Christmas miracle. It was late, just before Christmas 1999, when the poet was wandering around a massive Ikea store with a long list of presents to buy. Suddenly, he became aware that a deep silence had fallen. He started shouting, ‘Is anyone there?’ But there was no reply. When he walked over to the door, he realised the store had been closed for two hours. He was alone. It was dark. He had no mobile and didn’t want to use the shop phones in case the police came to arrest him for shoplifting.
After two nights, surviving on chocolate bars and cans of soda, without company, and forced to look at things differently, a security guard finally turned up. ‘It was the strangest Christmas,’ he said, ‘but a really good one.’