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There are a plethora of books in the literature of piano playing that focus on everything from performing technique to musical analysis and biography. Very few are written primarily to stimulate the imagination of the performer. This is what Neil Rutman, a professional concert pianist and artist-in-residence at the University of Central Arkansas, sets out to do in Stories, Images and Magic. Rutman has sifted through a vast quantity of documentation to pull together an idiosyncratic assembly of quotes, anecdotes, fragments of letters, visual imagery and biographical notes that illuminate pieces often from an unusual angle.

Much of the book is centred around what composers, performers and first-hand observers have written about individual pieces of music, variable in quality and often in the form of programmatic commentary (such as George Sand’s novelettish annotations of Chopin). Of the 18 chapters, 16 are devoted to individual composers from Bach to Scriabin, while the final chapter features a miscellaneous crew which oddly lumps Schubert and Mozart alongside the likes of Rameau and Edward MacDowell.

Rutman is aware that his approach may not be fashionable in the 21st-century, but his admirable aim is to bring a more subjective, human dimension to contemporary pianism, which so often gets lost in the rather clinical emphasis on a perfect technique. While stressing that a lively imagination is no substitute for technical competency, he quotes Alfred Corot who once said that ‘the image itself is neither necessary for the audience to know nor essentially connected to the architecture of the piece, but it is essential in unlocking the imagination of the student and the performer during the learning process’.

FRANZ WULF Read the full review on Agora Classica


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