by Robert Hanks
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.