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.