Classics, rockers and all that jazz


MUSIC:Though it is written from an American perspective, a new history of the piano and pianists from Mozart to Jerry Lee Lewis makes entertaining reading

A Natural History of the Piano by Stuart Isacoff, Souvenir Press, 361pp, £20.

Stuart Isacoff’s A Natural History of the Piano is subtitled The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – from Mozart to Modern Jazz, and Everything in Between.

In fact, chronologically Isacoff traces the prehistory of the piano back to its origins almost a century before Mozart reached his prime, but he picks Mozart as his spiritual starting point for the book. The title of that chapter, “The First Piano Superstar”, gives a clue to Isacoff’s approach: he is interested in the stellar celebrity of great pianists and pianist-composers throughout history.

However, the pianist who launches the book in the first chapter is not Mozart but the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and throughout the book Isacoff brings jazz pianists into the heart of his exposition, alongside their classical counterparts.

Clearly determined to cut at least partly across the historical grain, Isacoff then organises the main history of pianist-composers into four categories of his own making, devoting an extended chapter to each: Combustibles (think explosives), Alchemists (sound magicians), Rhythmitizers (percussionists) and Melodists (tear-jerkers).

The Combustibles chapter starts, after a brief nod to CPE Bach and Haydn, with Beethoven and Liszt, continues into the 20th century with Bartok, Stravinsky and Elliott Carter, and finishes with Jerry Lee Lewis (yes, rock’n’roll pianists are here too), Earl Hines and Cecil Taylor.

The Alchemists chapter includes, among others, Debussy, Messiaen, Scriabin, Billy Evans, Duke Ellington, John Cage and minimalism (Reich, Glass and Riley).

In the case of the Combustibles, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis is more than appropriate. There’s a terrific story about Lewis’s being put out because Chuck Berry, who was sharing a show with him in Brooklyn in 1958, was insisting on closing the show, in line with his contract; so Lewis, having got as far as Great Balls of Fire and with the crowd at fever pitch, kept playing with one hand while with the other he doused the piano in gasoline, managed to light a match one-handed, and set the piano ablaze without ever stopping playing. This was clearly not an easy act for Berry to follow.

Isacoff’s coverage of jazz pianists is engrossing, whereas his history of the classics is variable in its intensity and occasionally lapses into cliche: “Bach’s music rings with heavenly certitude; Beethoven’s radiates human struggle” (there is plenty of struggle in Bach too); “Despite their dearth of hummable tunes, Beethoven’s sonatas grip us and refuse to let go” (in fact they have plenty of “hummable tunes”). The stories he tells of Liszt are in the main familiar ones, and one gets more of an impression of a personal voice when he writes about Oscar Peterson.

Duels and battles

There is an immense field to cover, and Isacoff embraces the challenge with gusto. There are many positives to the book, for instance in the retelling of some of the historical “duels” between the instrument’s greatest exponents.

There are the battles between the young Liszt and the virtuoso Thalberg (Liszt was generally declared the winner), and the earlier encounter between Mozart and Clementi, when the latter remarked: “I had never heard anyone play with so much spirit and grace” (Mozart was less kind).

Best of all are the five or six pages on the great jazz supervirtuoso – and almost certainly one of the most gifted technicians in the entire global history of piano-playing – the nearly blind Art Tatum. As Isacoff says: “Every pianist who encountered Tatum had a war story to tell.”

The rueful remarks of several jazz pianists are worth quoting: “The question when you heard Tatum was, ‘Who are those two guys?’ (Billy Taylor); “That’s when I got my personal introduction to a keyboard monster by the name of Art Tatum” (part of a hilarious and wonderful description by Count Basie of his own ill-starred encounter).

The book uses inserts from a wide range of contemporary contributors, including the author, and from older writings. Examples include Oscar Peterson, My Teacher, by Mike Longo; The Challenge of Mozart, by Alfred Brendel; The Piano in China, by Yundi Li; and The Spirit of South American Music, by Gabriela Montero. In addition, there is a substantial appendix, where Isacoff fills some gaps in the main text.

This brings us to questions of balance within the book, between classical and jazz, between Europe and America (the two principal areas covered in the book), and between the greater or lesser emphasis given to various composers and pianists. A few seem to get a raw deal: the composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich get just two pages between them, and Prokofiev’s piano sonatas, four of which are staples of concert halls, are not mentioned; and the pianist Martha Argerich, to many people one of the outstanding living pianists in any genre, receives just a brief and rather warped appraisal in the appendix.

The whole important area of the piano as a chamber-music instrument in duos, trios, quartets and quintets is omitted altogether, which is strange when one considers that composers such as Brahms and Fauré, to name but two, really should not be discussed as piano composers without inclusion of their music for piano with other solo instruments. The piano as an accompaniment to singers is also scantily covered, represented only in the case of Schubert.

American angle

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.

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