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Radio review: Nuremberg and How to Play

03 September 2021


Nuremberg (Radio 4, Fridays) relates in dramatic form how Nazi war criminals came to be captured, imprisoned, and tried

Nuremberg (Radio 4, Fridays) relates in dramatic form how Nazi war criminals came to be captured, imprisoned, and tried

FROM the opening orchestral chords, underscoring a narration that seemed to channel the spirit of the great Sir Larry Olivier himself, it is clear that Nuremberg (Radio 4, Fridays) is to be one of those important BBC productions. Scripted by Jonathan Myerson and based on an extensive range of archive materials, it tells in dramatic form of how Nazi war criminals came to be captured, imprisoned, and tried. You can hear the story unfold over eight weeks on Friday afternoons on Radio 4, or binge the whole lot on BBC Sounds now.

As it turns out, the tone of this drama is not one of oppressive gravitas. Within the grand narrative lie so many stories — horrific, tragic, and farcical — that it is to Myerson’s credit that he steers so deftly between them, and controls his sources with so much discipline. Several of these stories might, in themselves, justify an extended script: the capture of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Himmler’s deputy, who flees to Austria with his pregnant mistress with a trunk full of gold, and tries, in vain, to pass himself off as an Austrian doctor; or Hans Frank, Governor-General of Poland, who tries to bribe his way out with a Leonardo.

The rule of tyrants is as likely to end in bathos as heroism — witness Gaddafi hiding in a drain pipe — and here the Nazi potentates’ fall from assumed nobility is accentuated by their interactions with their plain-speaking American captors. “Do you know who I am?”, intoned in a heavy and indignant German accent, appears only once in Myerson’s dialogue; but one can imagine it being uttered dozens of times, as the dignities of power are swiftly stripped away. But, in Myerson’s skilled hands, this is the banality of evil as imagined by Hannah Arendt rather than the cast of Allo ’Allo.

In one of my favourite music-related cartoons, a solitary couple dance in close embrace. Thought bubbles express their undying love for each other. Meanwhile, the jazz pianist whose music provides the soundtrack to their passion is thinking about the chicken biryani that he is going to consume once the punters have finally hoofed off.

In How to Play (Radio 4, Monday), we were given fleeting glimpses into the minds of the Chineke Chamber Ensemble, as the five players prepared for a performance of Schubert’s great “Trout” Quintet. As one admitted, audiences would be shocked to know what’s going on in the mind of professional musicians as they perform the world’s most sublime music. A late-night curry, perhaps; or, more likely, nothing at all.

It is notoriously difficult to get musicians to explain how they rehearse, and, in particular, chamber musicians. So much more is achieved through the doing than through the talking about doing. So, the producers of How to Play are to be congratulated for doing a better job than most — crucially, giving us extended, “fly-on-the-wall” access to the ensemble’s rehearsal. And it will be reassuring to all pianists that what goes through Tom Poster’s mind when he starts the “Trout” is “I really hope I don’t screw up that first arpeggio.”

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