Discovering Music Reviews
Independent On Sunday January 20 2008
by Nicholas Lezard
I sometimes think that the postures of the lady which summarise the judgement of the critic she's sitting on top of in this newspaper do not allow for a full range of expression. There should, for instance, be one of her putting a gun to her head; and, at the other end of the scale, something more ecstatic than standing up and applauding. Perhaps raising a glass of champagne, or taking all her clothes off and running around the room with wild abandon.
This would be my choice for her reaction to last Sunday's Discovering Music. This is always a good programme. For a start, Stephen Johnson, who presents it, has the kind of voice that is perfect for conveying infectious and learned enthusiasm. What the programme does is take a piece of music and, with the help of those who will be playing it - often a full orchestra - pull it apart, and show us how it works. We hear the historical context as well as the musical workings, and about the composer's own life. It all comes together with such graceful fluency that it's almost musical in itself: one could toy with the idea of a programme called "Discovering "Discovering Music"" just so we can find out how Johnson does it. I have been in a car with a classical-music-hating woman and three small children - and they have all hung on Johnson's words.
Last Sunday he brought along the Royal Quartet to examine Mozart's "Haydn" quartets, which he composed as a homage to and gift for his teacher, then the most famous composer on earth, and indeed rightly so. His dedication to Haydn, which Johnson read out almost in its entirety, was in itself enough to reduce one to tears - but when Johnson explained the difficult time Mozart was having with his father, our understanding was considerably deepened.
As it was when he talked about the music. Mentioning a particular cadence, harmony or technique, the Royal Quartet would obligingly play the relevant section. (Johnson apologised at one point for an abrupt ending: as he said, the music flows so unstoppably that it is hard to find a natural breaking-off point.)
He is interested in showing us "the inner parts" of the string quartet - the viola and second violin, which might not carry the melody but provide the guts of the music. (This might be said to stand for his whole approach, in all his programmes.) I'd always wondered why I liked string quartets so much - and I'm beginning to find out why.
And he has a wonderful gift for making his insights accessible. Describing a certain kind of quartet, he asked us to imagine four people sitting round a table, each one saying the word "marmalade" in a slightly different manner. How could one put it better?
(c) 2008 Independent News & Media PLC
The Independent October 2007
by Robert Hanks
The Week In Radio
Stephen Johnson’s analysis of Beethoven’s Fifth was far more – combative, occasionally funny, verging on the poetic.Johnson (who also presents Discovering Music on Sunday afternoons) has an unrivalled ability to talk about the technicalities of music in terms of feeling: he calls attention to details of orchestration - a winding melody on an oboe, a pounding on a timpani – and shows how they contribute not just a texture but an emotion, a meaning; how different tunes or figures in a piece relate to one another to create a narrative and a sense of structure.
He doesn’t do puffs, though: the handling of a key section by Wilhelm Furtwangler was dismissed as “ludicrous”, and Johnson wondered aloud how much Furtwangler’s mystique owed to the appalling sound quality of his recordings.
Armed by such conversation, you listen to Beethoven with new ears; and you can understand why some people think Western classical music is among our most important achievements. Radio 3 needs less puff, more explanation – as a matter of public service, and of self-defence.
The Observer 20 August 2006
by Stephanie Billen
Shostakovich: Journey into Light
Stephen Johnson feels that Shostakovich’s music has helped him survive clinical depression. In a moving programme he travels to Moscow and St Petersburg to meet contemporaries including a man who breaks down at the memory of playing Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in Leningrad at the height of the Seige.
The Independent 19 August 2006
Shostakovich: Journey into Light
Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer behind some of the darkest, most sorrowful music ever written, had much to be sad about during his life, from the horrors of the Second World War to the tyranny of Stalin, who periodically denounced his work. In this unusual documentary marking the centenary of the composer’s birth, Stephen Johnson, who has been diagnosed with serious clinical depression, reveals how the music of Shostakovich has helped him to survive his illness.
Johnson tells of his battles with depression, visits Moscow and St Petersburg, ad meets those who knew Shostakovich, among them Alexandra Mravinsky, the widow of the conductor Yevgenny Mravinsky, and the composer Boris Tishenko. He also finds out how contemporary Russians relate to Shostakovich and what his music means to a country still coming to terms with its past.
The Stage August 2006
Radio – light programme review
The centenary celebrations of the births of two major artists, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and English poet John Betjeman, have afforded presenters Stephen Johnson and AN Wilson respectively the opportunity to go on very personal journeys through each of their pasts. Meanwhile, too, the personal music choices of the guests of Desert Island Discs continues to offer a lighter but often intimately revealing musical journey through the lives of their guests.
Being true to yourself and your art may be a juggling act for an interpretive artist such as an actress but for a primary creative artist such as a composer or poet, the work and the life it has sprung from are indivisible. After Lawley’s imaginary desert island revelations, Stephen Johnson makes a literal journey to Shostakovich’s birthplace of St Petersburg and Moscow where he lived to make an even bolder imaginative leap: to explore the composer’s momentous impact on Johnson’s own life and in particular of helping him to deal with the three times he has been diagnosed with clinical depression.
In the process, this became not just an absorbing aural history of its fascinating main subject but also an affecting and intimate study of how great art, made in a spirit of defiance and survival as Shostakovich did as he lived through the terrible Stalinist era, can help others to survive through their own dark periods. Johnson identifies with the poignancy and despair of Shostakovich’s music – but also of the flicker of hope that it embodies for others as a result.
Glasgow Herald August 2006
Radio Review- Shostakovich: Journey into Light
Clinical depression is the fathomless black hole inside a person’s head. Three times in his life the journalist Stephen Johnson has been its victim, his entire life being trapped in a hopelessness which seemed beyond control. But in Journey into the Light (Radio 3, Sunday), he wrenchingly described how he has found escape through music. Not jaunty stuff but the huge, catastrophic dissonances of Shostakovich. Music so dark and convulsed in suffering it seemed to resonate with his own despair. Here was a remarkable programme which centred on Johnson’s pilgrimage from his Herefordshire garden to Moscow and St Petersburg, cities that shaped the composer’s work. This was a story that was soul-baring but not self-pitying in its transcendence out of ransacking melancholia. Yet, as Johnson’s Russian contributors affirmed, Dmitri Shostakovich’s music exploded from Stalinists horrors so brutal they were impossible for outsiders to grasp.
Thus Johnson asked himself what right had he to claim the composer for himself. The answer was simple: even from his inauspicious grave in Moscow, Shostakovich still gave his genius to anyone who stopped to listen. And in listening to, say, the Fourth Symphony or the Eighth Quartet, Paul Robertson, leader of the Medici Quartet noted: “You can see, from the painfulness, something beautiful has occurred.” A ladder outwards from somewhere extreme and desolate, he said. Johnson had found in Shostakovich “a helping hand” and Robertson had observed the same in psychiatric wards when the Medici musicians played to profoundly troubled patients. The music, in giving purpose to tragedy, consoled the hitherto inconsolable.