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Who is the eponymous ‘modern pianist’ of Stephen Siek’s compendium? How do you define such a person? Is this a dictionary for those of all ages and experience who play the piano in 2017? Is it intended primarily for pianists, or is the general music lover included in its target audience? What, in short, is the author’s purpose in assembling a dictionary of piano-related entries when most of the material can easily be accessed on the internet (albeit less assiduously and accurately researched)?

Siek, emeritus professor of music at the University of Wittenberg in Ohio, is the leading authority on the life, teachings and students of Tobias Matthay. On matters pianistic he knows whereof he speaks, and his Dictionary, apart from being scholarly and elegantly-written, is far more than a bald Wikipedian recitation of facts: it is a hymn of love to the piano, joining other classic volumes on the subject such as Harold Schonberg’s The Great Pianists and David Dubal’s The Art of the Piano.

The bulk of the Dictionary is given over to the biographies of more than 200 pianists, many of them meriting lengthy essays, with judicious and not always flattering characterisations of their personalities and playing. Details of their careers, outstanding recordings, frequent (usually American) press reviews and snippets of trivia enliven the text when appropriate. It’s the kind of book that the 10 minutes you intended to spend in its company will stretch to 30 before you realise it. All this is superbly handled, a goldmine of information to the connoisseur and newcomer alike.

Inevitably, in an undertaking of this size, some authorial or editorial decisions will raise eyebrows. Was it prudent to include some jazz and (a very limited number of) pop pianists (it takes in the death of Keith Emerson, 2016)? For me, it rather throws the book’s primary focus. Siek sensibly excludes any discographies, individual works and pianists of today’s younger generation whose lasting impact has yet to be assessed. Problems arise when it comes to those pianists whose fame today rests primarily with composition: so no Brahms, Debussy and Prokofiev. Dussek, Hummel, Henselt and Busoni are included, however, but not (most regrettably) Alkan or Saint-Saëns.

The reputations of Adolph Hallis, Edwin Hughes, Frank Mannheimer, Bruce Simonds and John Perry – names that do not resonate on the international stage – scarcely justify preference over Mischa Levitzki, Michael Ponti and Cyprien Katsaris inter alia. Hough and Hamelin are here but not Volodos; there’s far too much on Previn, and nothing on Pletnev or Nikolai Petrov. Occasionally, one wishes for a firmer editorial hand: the prognosis for 95-year-old Abbey Simon’s rehabilitation after a car crash will date quickly.

Appendices C, D and E are valuable essays by other writers on ‘Historical Pianos and Their Relationship to the Standard Repertoire’, ‘Digital Pianos in the Modern Pianist’s World’, and ‘The Player Piano and the Reproducing Piano’. There are brief entries on nearly 60 piano makers. The text is sparsely illustrated with occasional music examples. If Siek has a hidden agenda, it is surely to stimulate, inspire, intrigue and, yes, entertain those who take little heed of his subject’s hinterland, historical legacy, recordings and great names of the past. It is not, he affi rms, a world that is overly familiar to many of today’s young pianists, who seem unimpressed by or unaware of – to use the author’s examples – Edwin Fisher’s Bach, Schnabel’s Beethoven, Cortot’s Chopin or Gieseking’s Debussy.

The handsomely produced book, roughly A4 in size, is firmly bound in laminated hard covers. It is altogether different from a book with a similar title, first published in 2009, which somewhat bemusingly comes from Hamilton Books, part of the same Rowman & Littlefield group that has produced Siek’s volume. A Pianist’s Dictionary – Reflections on a Life is a modest paperback of 88 pages by Alan Hersh, ‘a pianist how [sic] has performed in solo and chamber music concerts throughout the United States’, and currently professor of music at the University of Kentucky.

Part autobiography, it is a dictionary insofar as different elements of the pianist’s skills are tackled in a series of 25 alphabetically ordered essays: Accompanist, Analysis, Authenticity, Competition… through to Theory, Tone and Voicing. Hersh, in his gentle, unassuming way, has many insights and sensible things to say about the world of the classical pianist. Any student would benefit from the sage advice on offer. The idiosyncratic use of italicised CAPITAL LETTERS that pop up throughout the text is a curiosity rather than a distraction. Not so the number of TYPOS I spotted. Another visit to the proof-reader would not have gone amiss. Nevertheless, to quote Professor Hersh, ‘In its most fundamental sense, sports and music are all in the same business: entertainment! GO BIG RACH!

JEREMY NICHOLAS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing