– Behemoth Dances Performance

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.”

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Independent On Sunday – Discovering Music

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.

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The Independent – The Week In Radio

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.

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Classic FM: Book of the Month: Wagner his Life and Music

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.

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The Observer – Shostakovich: Journey into Light

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.

The Independent – Shostakovich: Journey into Light

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.

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The Stage – Shostakovich: Journey into Light

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.

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Glasgow Herald – Shostakovich: Journey into Light

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.

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