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Paul Johnson is ‘armed with expert knowledge of the time period as well as with Mozart’s own words’, according to the blurb. Sadly he does not possess expert knowledge of the music, although by parading innumerable and often unnecessary statistics he seems to create the opposite impression. The number of errors, even howlers, in this book indicates a casual approach. Johnson has written best- selling books on Darwin, Napoleon etc but has over-reached himself here. It is irritating to find someone of Johnson’s status comfortably riding on his reputation while producing a flawed, poorly researched book which also fails to provide anything original or insightful.

Johnson starts badly, announcing that Mozart usually preferred the Latin form of his name, Amadeus. Any scholarly book will tell us that he actually preferred Amadé or Gottlieb. There is space here for only a selection of his most alarming blunders. On page 27 he writes of Mozart’s alleged dislike of the harp: ‘…there is no evidence for this in his composition record, where it makes a decorous and sometimes brilliant appearance, if appropriate.’ (The concerto for flute and harp is the only of the composer’s works to include the instrument.) on page 42, Johnson claims that Haydn never used covered timpani and muted trumpets, but while discovering his mistake he will otherwise enjoy listening to the slow movement of symphony no 102. JS Bach (p111) should read JC Bach, there is no word ‘ritendendo’ (p119) and Robert Gutman is given two Ts (p144).

Many of Johnson’s assertions – Mozart regarded the trombone as ‘a source of sensation’, for instance – are false, while ‘K488 … is scored for clarinets, one reason why it is so authoritative’ is bizarrely illogical. Into one single, woeful sentence he squeezes four mistakes, of which I quote merely two ‘... so-called Kegelstaff trio of works ...’ (The Kegelstatt trio is a single work). In the last third of the book his tone becomes annoyingly cosy, his propensities for lazy, self-indulgent remarks or highly subjective, unsupported opinions more obvious. His final comments (p138) ooze with sentiment and deserve a big ‘yuk’. Avoid this book.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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