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The early signs were a little off-putting – too journalistic, too many clichés – but reservations were soon swept away by the sheer energy of the narrative. This book is both vastly entertaining and wonderfully informative. Isacoff always seems to come up with that extra piece of background or a juicy anecdote.

I doubted that Isacoff’s notion of four types of musician – ‘the combustibles’, ‘the alchemists’, ‘the rhythmitizers’ and ‘the melodists’ – would stand up to much scrutiny, but they are treated as little more than convenient groupings. Amusingly, the chapter on the combustibles includes the literal use of fire – for instance, Jerry Lee Lewis, competing with Chuck Berry one night in 1958, broke into Great Balls of Fire, set the piano alight and carried on playing. There are many similarly colourful stories – mostly from jazz and popular music but also from the classical scene, Gottschalk and numerous successive travelling virtuosi providing much material.

Isacoff’s range of composers and performers is all-embracing, from Mozart to Nancarrow, Stockhausen, Messiaen and Cage, while his coverage of the jazz scene is equally generous – Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk (his wife called him ‘Melodious Thunk’) are included, as well as female jazz pianists Estrild Raymona Myers, Loretta Sell and others. Liberace, Victor Borge and Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach) are also accommodated, as are modern fortepianists, the Cat Harmonicon (!), the sewing table piano, etc. I particularly like the way Isacoff discusses composers in terms of their all-round historical importance, and not merely as composers for the piano.

Other bonuses in this comprehensive and quite brilliant book are the many inserts, on topics such as player pianos, digital pianos, and ‘Anxieties of a Performing Musician’ by Yefim Bronfman. There is a lively and amusing section on piano competitions – numbering 114 in 1990, now at least 750. Finally, this is Glenn Gould in Brahms’ first piano concerto: ‘Like a musical vampire, he drew all the lifeblood … and left a pale, cold cadaver in its place.’

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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