Thursday, 10 October 2013

Book review - A Natural History of the Piano


This new book, by Stuart Isacoff, is billed as 'The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians - from Mozart to Modern Jazz and everything in between'. Isacoff is the founding editor of the magazine Piano Today and he teaches at Purchase College Conservatory of Music. With such a billing, he is certainly raising expectations about the book and its content. The book is organised thematically, rather than strictly historically. The opening chapter starts with some of Oscar Peterson's final performances at the age of 80 and throughout the book, Isacoff seeks to link the performances off the jazz greats of today and in the past with the historical tradition of classical piano playing.

The book has now been published in paperback, in time for that awkward Christmas present

One of the interesting features of the book's layout is the inclusion of thematic boxes (or whole pages) interrupting the main narrative, written by Isacoff and distinguished practitioners. These illuminate a single aspect of the topic under discussion so we have Mike Longo on his teacher Oscar Peterson, Alfred Brendel on the Challenge of Mozart, a discussion of pedal pianos and Vladimir Horowitz on audience, along with many other useful and interesting titbits.

Next comes the piano's genesis, followed by Mozart's piano career. Reading these chapters another feature of Isacoff's writing become apparent, his concern to link things to the present day via, for example, the description of a Mozart concert at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. The fact that Mr Isacoff is American means that this gives the book a certain slant, the view from America.

We next get Piano Fever, the development of the piano as an instrument everyone had to play. Though one interesting point that comes out repeatedly is that piano playing for amateurs was Ok for ladies but not gentlemen. Isacoff is adept at weaving in useful, odd and amusing facts. He rarely goes at a subject straight but wanders round seducing with yet more unusual information.

Performers on the Road introduces the problems of travelling in earlier times, with much interesting reportage. It is here that the slant of the book is reinforced as Isacoff takes the pianists' travels in America to stand in for all of them.

At this point he seeks to define the different sounds from the piano and it pianists. He classifies the pianists into groups, the Combustibles, the Alchemists, the Rhythmetizers and the Melodists. He then discusses each group in turn, so that instead of an immensely long historical discussion we have four interesting, thematic discussions. It was only when we came to the Rhtymetizers that I had problems, the only pianists in this group are rag-time and jazz musicians. Aren't any classically pianists rhythmic in style? Though he does use this as an excuse for a delightful description of the genesis of the style including a quote from Dickens.
Finally we get the Melodists where we move effortlessly from Schubert and Chopin to Nat King Cole and George Shearing.

The Cultivated and the Vernacular seeks to mop up pianists missed before, with the vernacular covering Scott Joplin, Mrs H.H.A. Beard, Ives and Copland as well as Latin America. Both the Russian and German schools are viewed through an American lens, with long illuminating descriptions of the pianists American tours. Next comes the positive world explosion of piano playing. Glenn Gould warrants almost a chapter to himself along with a side-step into new technology.

Finally, an epilogue with Menahem Pressler, aged 87, visiting a club in Greenwich Village.

I enjoyed the book and found it illuminating and highly readable. As with Alex Ross's book The Rest is Noise, it is pointless complaining about the author's seeing things though an American lens; Isacoff is American.

More worrying were the lacunae. There is an appendix which seeks to include al the major pianists and piano schools. But Clara Schumann as pianist and teacher gets little room, with no mention of her pupils like Fanny Davies. Similarly the influence of Liszt as a teacher on his school of performers is not discussed. Percy Grainger is mentioned as a folksong collector, but not as a piano virtuoso with no mention of his important role in learning the Grieg  piano concerto with the composer himself.


Pianist composers such as de Falla, Grandos and Albeniz are dismissed in one paragraph, as is Faure. Similarly Busoni is relegated purely to the appendix, and his concerto surely warrants space. Nor does the great Scottish pianist/composer Ronald Stevenson get a look in.

Fascinatingly, given the author's assiduous mentioning of jazz musicians, not mention is made of Edwin Fischer's excursions into jazz. From a personal point of view, there are just too many jazz pianists, too much concentration on jazz. But someone more interested in the genre might find it helpful.

The book is generously and helpfully illustrated. It is a highly readable book for anyone interested in this curious and all encompassing instrument.

The book is published by the Souvenir Press whose current list includes such varied gems as Claire Nahmad on calling angelic assistance, healing wisdom into your life; Richard Smyth on an absorbing history of toilet paper; Jean Nohain and F. Caradac on Le Petomane (the true story of a guy who could fart as a musical instrument!).

Stuart Isacoff - A Natural History of the Piano
Souvenir Press 361 pages
Available in Paperback and Hardback


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