Paul Gambaccini’s Radio 4 show ‘For One Night Only‘ is a reasonably rare thing: a radio show about (as opposed to playing) music that manages to avoid being joyless, self-indulgent and too long. I think this could have something to do with the fact each episode is built around a specific historical event, in this case a live concert. The show’s premise therefore has a satisfying sort of tangibility and groundedness to it, and there’s much less of the tangent-wandering concept-wankery than you sometimes get with this subject matter.
At the very least, listeners find out about some music they didn’t know before. Better, it can provide context to music you already like, and make you like it a lot more. The episode I’m especially thinking of is this one from 2008, which looks back at the BBC Prom of 21st August 1968, when (Soviet) Rostropovich and the (Soviet) USSR State Symphony Orchestra played (Czech) Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, amid calls for the concert to be cancelled and protests in London. That’s because it had also been the day that Russian tanks invaded Czechoslovakia.
It sounds like the plot of a film, and I’m kind of surprised that it isn’t. The Radio 4 programme’s contributors describe a tearful Rostropovich playing the music in such a way as to make it ‘completely clear whose side he was on’. I would have loved to see him play at any time, but this is a whole new level. People shouting in the audience, protestors outside, and tanks in Czechoslovakia. It gives the whole thing a sense of pulpy, obvious importance that is nearly, but not quite, ridiculous.
I’m pretty sure an mp3 of this episode of the show can still be downloaded from some places. The CD is available on BBC Legends, for example here, and now I’m going to buy it.