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Pianist, critic and founder of the now-defunct Piano Today magazine Stuart Isacoff dissects the ongoing evolution of the piano and its musicians in this beautifully presented survey of all things keyboard. After a brief nod towards the piano’s role over the last 300 years, and the variety of artists it has inspired – from Art Tatum to Sviatoslav Richter – Isacoff begins with the instrument’s conception around 1700, by a technician who would later become known as ‘the father of the piano’, one Bartolomeo Cristofori. Transitions in history are rarely smooth, and not everyone welcomed the arrival of this foreign keyboard; Voltaire famously declared in 1774 that the piano was a mere ‘kettle- maker’s instrument in comparison with the harpsichord’. It wasn’t until Mozart, Isacoff explains, that the piano became a serious draw. And this wasn’t just for its musical prowess. In a chapter entitled Piano Fever, quotes from Victorian sources reveal that the piano was revered as a sign of prosperity – and as a piece of furniture. One account recommends that: ‘It makes an excellent shelf for odds and ends of china and bowls of flowers’!

This book is especially appealing in that it covers pianism through the ages, rather than simply classical pianism. So while we learn how the likes of Leopold de Meyer conquered the early American touring circuit, we also discover how Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Fats Waller and James P Johnson formed the triumvirate at the centre of the Harlem ‘stride’ school of piano playing.

Isacoff loosely divides the piano’s timbre into four sounds based on earth, water, air and fire and creates four pianistic styles thus: ‘Rhythmitizers’ (e.g. Prokofiev, Fats Domino), ‘Melodists’ (e.g. Bach, Schubert), ‘Alchemists’ (e.g. Debussy, Thelonious Monk), and ‘Combustibles’ (e.g. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, Jerry Lee Lewis). Although it is wisely noted that many pianists display traits from multiple groups, this creative classification is intriguing, and is amply explored.

Throughout, sidebars on everything from pedals to finger-support devices add a sense of colour to the generally lively prose. The book is peppered with quotes from beloved pianists such as Alfred Brendel, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia; these add weight and an authorative air to the text.

No account of pianism would be complete without examination of the Russian school of piano playing compared to the European (specifically, German) approach – and to that of the rest of the world – and Isacoff devotes several chapters to how national identities were honed at the keyboard. Embedded into this topic is the subject of piano competitions; events that have ‘proliferated faster than Fibonacci’s rabbits’. (Indeed, this magazine covers a different contest each issue, and the choice can be overwhelming.)

Presenting historical information thematically poses a challenge, and there are times when the narrative does veer off course (not aided by the enjoyable – but randomly placed – sidebars). But overall, the piano’s path is accurately and articulately mapped out by a writer who is hugely knowledgeable and, vitally, passionate about his subject.

CLAIRE JACKSON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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