Sep 11th 2022

A personal story: Altering the mind with great music

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


When I try to understand my life as a critic in the dazzling world of piano music, I am at a loss. We have inherited so much over 300 years that I feel overwhelmed. There is no obvious focal point. What is at the heart of piano world?

-- Personally I could not make it through the day without the stimulation of piano performance. My home resounds with music all my waking hours, constantly renewed from the thousand-odd CDs I have accumulated.

-- I know of no legal substance that can alter your mind like music, and it does so without a hangover. My moods are at the mercy of Haydn, Ravel and Debussy.

-- We benefit from various electronic devices that make the entire keyboard repertoire available virtually free to the listener. Sheet music too is floating around the web for reprinting privately at home. I don’t mind that more and more paid subscriptions and other charges cropping up. Performers deserve a good slice of the pie.

To get a grip on this subject, I have opened my personal diary, beginning a typical day with two giants and continuing to bedtime with lullabies.  Taken together, these choices demonstrate the power of the piano.

EARLY MORNING – My morning never starts until I flip on the CD player and rearrange the five discs it rotates. I need Bach and Mozart for chasing the cobwebs from my brain before I make the coffee. Specifically, I probably put on Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations (1981 version) and Mozart’s wonderfully inventive piano sonatas played by Mitsuko Uchida. Next, to lighten the atmosphere, I like to do 15 minutes of Erik Satie.

STARTING TO WORK – I spend most days writing and painting, with great music in the background to encourage the creative process. The trick is to find the right volume so it tweaks your nervous system but does not mess up your concentration. As I write this, Brahms’ Scherzo in E-flat minor Op. 4, quietly played by William Grant Naboré, is the best medicine I can find.

FIRST COFFEE BREAK – Now I can turn up the volume and change my perspective with Prokofiev’s piano sonatas, preferably played by Murray McLachlan. It’s stirring music, dissonant, wild and avant-garde for the 1930s but a particularly shocking chord always catches my attention. At one point Sergei calls for the player to hit the keyboard “con pugno” (with fist). This is a cluster chord, a percussive whack on the piano that can be found scattered throughout the 20th century repertoire, notably in Charles Ives and bits of Sorabji, Messiaen, Louvier,  Xenakis, Ligeti, and yes even Stockhausen. Someone has written that Prokofiev used it to frighten “the old ladies of both sexes” in the audience.

BACK TO WORK – Turning the volume down to moderately quiet, the I race through Franz Liszt’s La Campanella Grande Etude (Paganini) or Gnomenreigen, both melodic wonders and sunny virtuoso exercises. Thank you, Franz, for making me want to dance as I work. These pieces have defeated numerous pianists over the years but dozens of fine recordings are out there. Take your pick. As a listener, I know them by heart and hum along as they spin.

REVISIONS –At this point I look back, sometimes appalled, at my morning’s output, and attack it again. For this, I depend on the aggressive stimulation of Alexander Scriabin, ranging from his early Chopin derivatives to his later ground-breaking rhythms and harmonies. Recordings worth a visit are Ashkenazy, Berman, and Hamelin. I finish in a sweat, either from the music or my revisions, I’m never sure which.

LUNCHTIME RECITAL – I allow myself the freedom to wander around 300 years of music in small samples, creating my own DIY piano recital. Keeping the volume at medium so as not to annoy my wife, I go through some of Bach’s 1722 shimmering masterpiece Well-Tempered Clavier (Happy Anniversary, JS), played by Sviatoslav Richter, to another collection of preludes and fugues by Rodion Shchedrin, to Messiaen’s solo piano, beginning with La Colombe (The Dove) which juxtaposes the dissonant and the consonant. And finally, as a dessert, the frightening Cziffra arrangement of “Flight of the Bumblebee” played by Georgy Cziffra himself.

AFTERNOON – Following my relaxed and musical lunch, nothing gets me back to work like Rachmaninov’s little gem, the Prelude Op.23 No.5 in G-minor. My player here is one I am grateful to -- the willowy Belgian-Russian Irina Lankova, a product of the great Gnessin School in Moscow and now a happy expat. She brings a driving momentum to the work, exactly what Rachmaninov desired. The piece leaves you panting for more but it ends peacefully at 3:43. (I never told her I wanted to buy her a Steinway D and offer her room and board à perpetuity.) To complete my afternoon I will put on Schubert’s monumental sonata in C-minor, with its contrasting darks and lights, played Brendel. As Andras Schiff writes in his new book “Music Comes Out of Silence”, he knows where to expect “the proverbial goose pimples” in Schubert, and at the end of the first movement in the C-minor is a passage that reverberates in a different way -- “terrifying me in the true sense of the word.” But he survives, and plays it to perfection.

TWILIGHT – I need some fun after a demanding day. One has to smile a bit, and Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” provides it – a celebratory Norwegian dance number full of Peer Gynt allusions and Norwegian folklore, played with bouncing good humor by Garrick Ohlson.  Completing the day’s adventures is Chopin’s Berceuse in E-flat major, a quiet piece guaranteed to bring your mind back to total calm.

DINNER – In background as the table groans under a full French evening meal, I need some pep and vigor, and I find it in the Spanish themes of Enrique Granados delightfully played by French pianist Jean-Francois Dichamp. His CD program marries Granados with Scarlatti, a pairing that came to him in an inspiration while on a solitary evening stroll in summertime Barcelona. He plays them alternately in recitals, convinced that the audience hears a piece differently when compared to the work that precedes it.

LIGHTS OUT – One of my favorite compositions in the repertoire is floating, lilting “Au Lac de Wallenstadt” performed by Wilhelm Kempf. I listen to it over and over with increasing emotion. It seems conceived for snuggling or sleeping or both. Still awake? Turn to Morton Feldman‘s Palais de Mari or all of Bertrand Chamayou’s recent CD selections “Good Night”.

It is with humility that I have made the piano a large part of my life, enriching and stimulating myself, and (as with Cziffra) amazing me.


Drawing: "The hands of Yuja Wang" by the author, Michael Johnson.

MJ Change of Page
"The hands of Yuja Wang" by the author Michael Johnson 



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