- - Friday, December 16, 2011

By Stuart Isacoff
Knopf, $30, 361 pages, illustrated

That long subtitle is a good indicator of the comprehensive approach Stuart Isacoff takes to “the most important instrument ever created.” The instrument’s development is traced to Bartolomeo Cristofori, a keyboard technician in Florence, who was commissioned by Ferdinando de’ Medici, the grand prince of Tuscany, to improve on the harpsichord. The new instrument that emerged from Cristofori’s workshop in 1700 had 49 keys (compared with 88 today), but its “action” was the forerunner of today’s mechanism that “allows a hammer to be propelled toward a string, strike it, and then disengage, or ‘escape,’ from the part that pushed it upward, so it will be ready to strike again.”

Mr. Isacoff moves easily from discussing his favorite jazz artist, Oscar Peterson, to Mozart to Horowitz. He quotes Alfred Brendel’s caution against artificial classifications of musicians only to introduce his own set of artificial classifications: the Combustibles (“musicians whose volatile, unpredictable music echoes life’s erratic tides,” including C.P.E. Bach and Beethoven), the Alchemists (exemplified by Debussy, who abandoned the “long-established rules of musical syntax”), the Rhythmitizers (performers of ragtime, boogie and jazz), and the Melodists (from composers Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Chopin to performer Liberace, who attributed his television success to keeping the tune paramount: “If I play Tchaikovsky, I play his melodies and skip his spiritual struggle.”)

Fortunately, after getting his classifications out there for consideration, Mr. Isacoff then wanders off into every possible byway. Sidebars abound, and the reader happily rambles along through his piano potpourri. Here are some samples:

On the anxieties of performing musicians, he quotes Yefim Bronfman: “It was Rostropovich who helped me deal with this anxiety. One night, I was about to play the Tchaikovsky First Piano concerto with him and the Vienna Philharmonic. I went to his room and said, ‘Maestro, I’m so nervous I don’t know what to do.’ He had the perfect answer. ‘Remember, no matter what happens tonight, we’ll go out after the concert and have a nice dinner. It’s not like being a pilot, when if you make a mistake everyone dies.’ “

On Beethoven’s musical genius, Mr. Isacoff cites Alfred Brendel’s description of the composer’s 33 “Diabelli Variations” on a mundane waltz theme in 1819: Beethoven “improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted” the ordinary material into “something awe-inspiring.”

On stage charisma, the author quotes pianist Andre Watts: “A pianist who looks like he is struggling to produce what is inside the music is assumed to be a deep thinker when, actually, it just means he is struggling.”

On artistic differences, Mr. Isacoff describes how Arthur Rubinstein declined to play the “Piano Rag Music” Stravinsky had written for him, arguing, “Your piece is written for percussion rather than for my kind of piano.”

Mr. Isacoff presents a particularly interesting discussion of Brahms, including pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein’s summary of critics’ complaints: “For the drawing room, he is not graceful enough, for the concert hall not fiery enough, for the countryside not primitive enough, for the city not cultured enough.”

As for the Russians, this is how Mr. Isacoff records Rachmaninoff’s reaction to Horowitz’s playing of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto: “He swallowed it whole. He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness.” Rachmaninoff continued, “Other pianists held [Horowitz] in awe, baffled by his peculiar flat-finger technique, the way the little finger of his right hand seemed held in a perpetual curl, the speed and accuracy of his performances, the immensity of his sound, and the painterly way he had of shading and blending the harmonies he played.”

Concerning the influence of one performer on perceptions of a composer, Mr. Isacoff notes that over the course of a long career, Arthur Rubinstein “evolved from a young piano personality with uneven accuracy into a seasoned artist who approached the repertoire with seriousness, dignity and an uncanny talent for making it all sound natural. He almost single-handedly changed the way we hear Chopin. In Rubinstein’s hands, Chopin’s music became full-bodied and resolute: clearly heartfelt, yet also muscular.” The photo of Rubinstein dancing down the street as he revisited his birthplace of Lodz, Poland, is irresistible - reflecting, says the author, “the pure joy of life, in a constant celebration of the beautiful.”

On the singularity of Van Cliburn’s playing, Mr. Isacoff cites what one Texas patron called Cliburn’s “magnolia blossom sound” - “warm and full-hearted, a valentine to his audience” - as well as Cliburn’s phrasing: “His way with a phrase was like pulling silken melodies from an endless cocoon.” When he entered the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 and began to play, Mr. Isacoff notes, “the jury was overwhelmed.”

“Sviatoslav Richter, who was told to rate pianists on a scale of one to twenty-five, gave Cliburn one hundred, and all the other contestants zero throughout the proceedings.”

The author also cites Richter’s singular solution to selecting an instrument on which to perform on tour in America: He opted out altogether because, when offered dozens to choose from, he spent all his time thinking he’d chosen the wrong one.

“Nothing is worse for a pianist than to choose the instrument on which he’s going to have to perform.” Richter concluded, “You should play on whichever piano happens to be in the hall, as though fate intended it so. Everything then becomes much easier from a psychological point.” And what if the instrument proves to be disastrous? “You have to believe … that you’ll walk on water.”

• Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.



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