Johnson, Carducci Quartet, Warwick Arts Centre review – new work with well-loved quintets
A beautiful contemplation by Stephen Johnson sits alongside Mozart and Brahms
By Miranda Heggie
There are those who say, somewhat cynically, that a way for new music to get an audience is to present it carefully packaged up with standard repertoire that will draw a larger crowd. How true that may be is open to debate, but composer Stephen Johnson did introduce his new piece – which was sandwiched between Brahms’s and Mozart’s clarinet quintets, as “the moment you’ve all been dreading”.
The work – Angel’s Arc – is a beautiful, contemplative piece of music that explores sorrow, loss and gratitude from memories of Johnson’s own life. It is named after an area of the West Pennine Moors called Anglezarke, which Johnson had been erroneously led to believe had been given its title from Protestant refugees fleeing the Spanish Netherlands. The fact this turned out not to be true didn’t stop the idea of a people finding sanctuary and being thankful for this place from dwelling in the composer’s mind, and as he says himself in his programme note “many of the most useful poetic ideas have their origins in a mistake”.
by David Truslove
It was the Anvil’s turn on Sunday night to host the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra as part of their UK tour under their Musical Director Pavel Kogan. Kick-starting the evening was a new work by BBC Radio 3 broadcaster and musicologist Stephen Johnson – Behemoth Dances – which received its UK première last week at the Cadogan Hall.
by Richard Bratby
Behemoth Dances. Who dances? You know, Behemoth, the huge demonic black cat who cakewalks through Stalin’s Moscow in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita spreading mayhem and magic; the spirit – as quoted by Bulgakov, and taken by Stephen Johnson as a sort of motto for his new orchestral work – “that always wills evil, but always does good”. A sardonic fanfare announces his appearance, before the orchestra whizzes away on a bustling, bristling spree. Woodwinds squeal and skirl, the surface glitters, and a piano throws in a few deadpan comments.
by Christopher Morley
Stephen Johnson is a much respected presenter and writer about music. As we discovered in Saturday’s concert from the remarkable Moscow State Symphony Orchestra he is also an accomplished composer. Behemoth Dances’ bristling energy was generously conveyed by the MSSO under Pavel Kogan’s empowering baton.
by Colin Anderson
As part of the Zurich International Series, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and long-standing music director Pavel Kogan arrived at Cadogan Hall and launched straight into a UK premiere, Behemoth Dances by Stephen Johnson (born 1955), best-known as a writer and broadcaster on music, a familiar voice on BBC Radio 3. If not Johnson’s primary occupation, his interest in composing goes back to his teenage years and has had the tutelage of Alexander Goehr and Robert Simpson. Behemoth Dances is “named after Bulgakov’s magnificent cat-demon Behemoth [from the novel, The Master and Margerita], who wreaks such havoc in Stalin’s Russia, yet whose pranks prove to be strangely redemptive for a few privileged souls.”
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 Michael Tumelty, The Glasgow Herald
Naxos has fashioned two superbly useful products out of all this. Both feature the writer and broadcaster Stephen Johnson, who, for many, is the authoritative British voice of classical music (pace James Naughtie and Charles Hazlewood).
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 Malcolm Hayes
Yet another introduction to Wagner? Yes, but there have been very few as good as this one. For all the punter friendly format, the quality and insight of Stephen Johnson’s writing also offers much food for thought to experienced Wagner buffs. Here’s one example: he points out that in Tristan und Isolde, the loosening of the traditional ties of classical rhythm is at least as radical and significant as the music’s much-heralded loosening of tonality. Exactly so. Rightly, Johnson in o way glosses over Wagner’s unsavoury side – the egomaniac opportunism, the anti-Semitism. Just as rightly, he presents these qualities within the wider fact of the composer’s wondrous musical achievement.
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.