Classics, rockers and all that jazz
Particularly when he surveys the 20th century, Isacoff takes an American perspective. Jazz becomes a major focus (at times, one feels, the focus) of the book. But on the classical side, too, the slant is similar.
The Texan pianist Van Cliburn’s famous victory in the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, in Moscow in 1958, is understandably given pride of place, from the ticker-tape parade that welcomed his homecoming to his subsequent gradual decline as a major pianistic force. But Isacoff also focuses on American pianists, such as Gary Graffman and Byron Janis, who did not make a major impact in Europe and who belonged to a clutch of Americans of the period who, after brilliant early careers, were severely affected by problems either physiological or psychological.
Isacoff does devote special chapters later in the book to the formidable schools of pianists emerging from Russia (Rachmaninov, Horowitz and so on) and Germany (Schnabel, Brendel); but even these are principally viewed through their concert tours in America, which in the cases of von Bulow and Paderewski (just before the turn of the century) were perhaps the most punishing tours ever undertaken by pianists – neither was able to complete his, because of exhaustion. (To be fair, a few of the greats, notably Rachmaninov and Horowitz, actually settled in the US.)
So if you’re looking for an entirely balanced appraisal of the pianistic repertoire and pantheon, you will not find it here. On the other hand, perhaps the book’s very strength is that it gives an American perspective on pianism in the past 100-plus years. And the book’s early chapters cast fascinating lights on the origin of the instrument and on what might be called the social history of the piano.