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Two new books underline the importance of nostalgia in savouring the pianistic art. Wolf Wondratschek, a German poet who taught at the University of Warwick in 1970-1, has been inspired by the cryptic, fragmentary verse of Paul Celan to produce an enigmatic, disjointed novel about a retired Russian pianist named Suvorin. Lacking the stamina to continue his career, Suvorin spends his time bemoaning past glories in chats with an unnamed narrator in Vienna estaminets.

Suvorin is wistful about the days when professional pianists smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol, both to excess. He also favours some of the more extreme legendary interpreters of yore, especially Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter.

Emotional impressions about keyboard performance are conveyed in descriptions of Richter: ‘Any interest in success, in seeking admiration for his capabilities as a pianist, was completely alien to Richter… [He] would probably have most preferred it if his name didn’t appear next to the composer’s on the playbill at all.’

Equally self-effacing, Suvorin adds an anecdote about a recital during which Richter, notorious for expansive tempos, played a Schubert sonata as a stultifying dirge, but later apologised to a friend for not having played it ‘slowly enough’.

Suvorin claims to find barbarity in audience applause after performances of Schubert’s heart-rending Sonata No 21 in B-flat, but loathing ovations is merely part of an all-embracing bitter sentimentality about bygone years expressed here.

At 75, Wondratschek, now based in Austria, is a bit of an acidulous leftover himself. In August 2018 Der Spiegel called him an ‘eccentric prose pistolero’. Wondratschek entertains the German media with stunts such as demanding that a previous publisher pay him with a suitcase filled with gold. He reportedly sells unpublished poems to fans at prices around €10,000 each.

Ambiguously titled, since the book features a Russian ex-pianist but no Russian piano, and deliberately confused in narration and plot, Self-Portrait with Russian Piano nevertheless impresses by showing how pianistic impressions can last a lifetime. The ultimately bittersweet and misleading implication is that our memories of past recitals may never be rivalled by those of the present or future.

Yearnings for the pianistic past are described with more Gallic rigour and lucidity in Writing with Chopin, a book of essays edited by two French experts on the alliances between music and literature.

UK readers may particularly welcome an analysis of the writings of Alfred Hipkins (1826-1903), commemorated by a brass memorial tablet in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, designed by Lawrence Alma- Tadema. Although he left no recordings, Hipkins was a renowned Chopin interpreter and general keyboard authority. His compelling book How Chopin Played (1937) comprises impressions by the composer’s contemporaries, compiled posthumously from Hipkins’ diaries and notebooks.

There are similarly authoritative chapters here about André Gide, who played works by Chopin to achieve artistic discipline in his writing, imposing his own aesthetic standards on the composer rather than vice versa. Hence the frequently wayward prejudices in Gide’s Notes on Chopin (1938), including the notion that Chopin’s works should be played excruciatingly slowly – not unlike the presumed approach of Richter, but without the latter’s technique or musical genius.

By contrast, Gide’s successor Marcel Proust was more overtly adulatory of Chopin and less manipulative. Proust hailed Chopin in a soppy poem from his early collection Delights and Days (Les plaisirs et les jours, 1896): ‘Chopin, sea of sighs, tears, sobs…’ (Chopin, mer de soupirs, de larmes, de sanglots…). The rest continues in exalted, musty fashion.

The liveliest and most original form of nostalgia involving pianism is found here in a racy chapter about references to Chopin in the crime novels of Frédéric Dard, featuring detective superintendent Antoine San- Antonio. Allusions to Chopin are found in no fewer than 18 of Dard’s hard-boiled, linguistically inventive thrillers published from 1950 to 1996.

Typically, in The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread (Le fil à couper le beurre, 1955) a policeman advises a suspect to ‘play Chopin for me’, meaning to full-heartedly confess the truth, since feigned emotions are unacceptable.

Dard’s novel, Righto, San-Antonio (Y’a bon San-Antonio, 1961) describes a luscious Polish woman, who ‘may not have read the Kama Sutra, but surely wrote it… I was completely unaware of the famous Polish position that Chopin taught to George Sand’.

Dard plays strenuously with the romantic legacy of Chopin in his well-known relationship with the novelist Sand. In Scared Stiff (Le trouillomètre à zero, 1987) the narrator disparages George Sand’s own fiction, comparing it with her potential abilities in the art of fellatio: ‘I hope old mother Sand’s skills at hoovering Chopin were better than her writing.’

Extrapolating from the amorous lore surrounding Chopin, Dard managed to transform him into something rather naughty, achieving a synthesis that is simultaneously recollective, amusing and up to date.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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