A grand romance: Sophy Roberts goes in search of lost Bechsteins in Siberia

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

The Lost Pianos of Siberia Sophy Roberts

Doubleday, pp.384, £16.99

In the world of classic cars, barn-finds sometimes do occur. An old Mercedes Gullwing might be discovered under tarps and hay on a farm somewhere in Florida, say, or an E-type Jag exhumed from out-buildings in Norfolk. Such discoveries are relatively rare, yet news of them reaches far beyond specialist magazines and websites for one simple reason: people love classic cars. We all invent stories about their history and fate based on the model, where it was found and who found it.

Musical instruments have nowhere near the same traction in our imagination. For a barn-find fiddle to garner international attention it would have to be a valuable violin, or its provenance would need to be mired in the murk and criminality of Nazi Germany. Yet even these instruments do not capture our notice and imagination in the way a looted Picasso manages. Art trumps music (discuss).

So Sophy Roberts has her work cut out for her even before she embarks on this picaresque tale about the lost pianos of Siberia. Nonetheless, she is certain that on her journey she will find a decent instrument — or one with a provenance so intriguing that she can overlook the cracked soundboard and mouldy hammers — buy it and bring it back to Odgerel Sampilnorov, a Mongolian pianist whom she has met and who has cast a spell. ‘What if I could track down a Bechstein in a cabin far out in the wilds?’ she writes (though chances are a cat would be living in it). Moreover, Roberts gambles that we will care enough about the object she seeks for us to last the distance. She herself would probably say that the characters she assembles in her twisty narrative are as important as the reason she encounters them. In fact, towards the end of the book, she does precisely this. ‘Was it all just a grand romance?’ she asks. ‘A chase for the object of desire rather than its achievement, marked by marvels, monsters and eccentric diversions?’

Alas, there are too few marvels, too many monsters for my taste. And I think that everything works out best for everyone if the person who stumbles across that Gullwing in that Florida barn has seen a car before. By Roberts’s admission, she doesn’t play the piano. This needn’t be a problem — Evelyn Waugh probably knew little about the politics of Abyssinia before turning up there in 1935 to cover the country’s unexpected war with Italy, producing a gripping if wayward colonialist-meets-native narrative — yet it quickly becomes one. The first decades of the 19th century were vital in the development of the modern pianoforte, as Roberts writes, yet the concert halls throughout Europe in which she places them in these same years were largely not yet built; the explosion in middle-class consumption (and performance) of pianoforte music belonged more readily to the 1840s and later.

Nomenclature is not always her ally. She describes a piano having an ‘even temper’ when (presumably) she means equal temperament, itself hardly a helpful descriptor. Later, when she writes about her encounter with an Ibach instrument from the 1850s with ‘original strings, hammers and well-tempered sound’, she unwittingly steps into the quicksand of 18th- and 19th-century tuning systems and is soon in up to her neck. (It is so unlikely that a piano today would be tuned in well temperament, a system from the late 17th century.)

Roberts also writes of Russia’s considerable contribution to art music at ‘the turn of the 19th century’, but it takes quite some sentences to discover whether she means 1800, 1900 or — as a fussy, brilliant copy editor once told me — 1850. And though an issue of history not nomenclature, one of Roberts’s secondary sources may well describe the Marquis de Custine as a ‘camp, gossipy travel writer’, yet I would prefer to think of him as a whip-smart, generous patron and good friend to Chopin.

How much any of this matters depends on whether you’re reading for the music, the journey or the prose. The prose is good (though thick with similes). And Roberts’s politics leave her a sympathetic observer to the ghostly, sombre faces that look out at us from her pages. She is also terrific on several key periods in Siberian history, not least the purges and gulags that came into their own during and following the Revolution of 1917, where pianos were destroyed for firewood or their aristocratic associations — much like harpsichords during the French Revolution. ‘Drag pianos out on to the streets,’ wrote the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. ‘Beat them until they fall to pieces.’ Now this is an interesting collision of high art and ideology! Yet the music throughout makes her a faltering guide on this slow, uncertain journey, and though the ending is ostensibly happy, I am left wondering whether it really was.

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