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.
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.
by Stephanie Billen
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.
by Fiona Sturges
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.
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.
by Anne Simpson
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.