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?
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