Guest article by Karine Hetherington

Vladimir Horowitz is probably the most famous concert pianist of all time. Wherever he performed, he drew legions of fans right up to his death in 1989. Audiences flocked to see the supernatural energy he brought to Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and other favourites from the romantic repertoire. There is no doubt, he was both virtuoso artist and a fascinating, idiosyncratic performer. Much has been said about his unusual flat-fingered technique which purists found vulgar.

Viewing some old footage of Horowitz, I was struck by how Jekyl and Hyde he appears on camera. Charming and charismatic, he nevertheless appears haunted by sadness.

Lea Singer, author of  ‘The Piano Student’, based on Horowitz’s secret life, had the novelist’s nose for the hidden story.

She was lucky enough to gain access to to Horowitz’s correspondence with a certain Nico Kaufmann. Kaufmann was Horowitz’s piano student, soon to become his lover in 1937. The secret letters have never been published and are to be found at Zurich’s Zentralbibliotek. Up until his death, Horowitz remained married to Wanda Toscanini (daughter to the famous and very influential conductor, Arturo Toscanini).

This is an unusual book which at first reads like a dark detective novel of the sort Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt might have written. A man walks away from his planned suicide. The agents, who were supposed to assist him, turn up to an empty house. The man has already fled and the reader sees him turning up at a bar where a remarkable pianist is playing.

Slowly, maddeningly slowly at first, in a bizarre, convoluted dialogue, the pianist, Nico Kaufmann, reveals his life to the stranger. The first few chapters were a tad far-fetched. We want suspense but frankly I was a little lost. An absence of speech marks, standard practice in European novels (this book was originally written in German) may have slowed me down a little.

Thankfully I grew accustomed to the style and notation. It was a good thing, as Lea Singer’s research translates into a riveting tale. 

Kaufmann takes the stranger (thereafter known as Doneti) on a journey into his past. The pair visit grand faded hotels, bars, lakeside houses around Zurich and Lucerne. In this twilight world Kaufmann’s memories of Horowitz surface in Proustian fashion. Of his piano lessons as a young man. His first kiss with his teacher. A powerful image remains with me of pale-bodied Horowitz, in his early thirties, lying next to the young Kaufmann in the hotel room. Their naked bodies are outstretched on the bed and are barely touching.

Not over sentimentalised, this is a moving book, filled with tension and tragedy. We see Horowitz, warts and all. We see his rages, his professional perfectionism and his bouts of depression. The younger Kaufmann is loved, hated and controlled by the older lover. With the urgency of war approaching adding to the suspense, this makes this a fascinating read.

Recommended if you, like me, relish knowing more about the legendary Horowitz, all be it through the imagination of an author who has researched the subject well.

In the confessional nature of the dialogue, this might make a good play. 

The Piano Student’ by Lea Singer is published by newvesselpress.com on October 6 2020.


Karine Hetherington is a teacher, writer and reviewer who lives in London. A dual-British and French national, with a Russian ancestry thrown in, her short stories and novels reflect her passion for both the detail and grand sweep of European history. After studying creative writing at Birkbeck College in London, Karine has been telling stories that have brought history to life, with tales of love and adventure that draw on the detail of real events and real lives. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine is also a reviewer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s sister site, ArtMuseLondon.


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Guest review by Mary Grace Nguyen

✭✭✭✭

In Jane Gray’s sensitive and stirring production of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgenyi Onyegin, now showing at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, tensions rise in Pushkin’s tale about a young girl who falls in love with a man who realises too late that he is also in love with her. Tchaikovsky’s alluring and stupendous music score, exquisitely performed on the piano by David Smith, elicits the love the young girl, Tatyana holds dear for an unsatisfied aristocrat, Onyegin as well as the suffering and torment of love’s powerful nature. 

Opera Loki’s new production has been touring in France and the UK. Sung in English, Onyegin is a refreshing opera for both avid opera-goers and those who are new to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. A vocally athletic cast take to Tchaikovsky’s vocal lines with ease and rapture, evoking the tragic and melancholic essence just as the Russian composer intended.  At St Paul’s Covent Garden, the staging is kept to a minimum, yet the use of a handful of props and collection of lush costumes, by Pam Line and Carolyn Bearare, bring the audience closer to Pushkin and his era.

There are a selection of noteworthy scenes in this production which demonstrate Tchaikovsky’s unique interpretation of regret, rejection and resilience. Hope for young Tatyana, engrossed in her fantasy novels of heroes and warriors, can be found in Act I when Tatyana writes her letter to Onyegin, disclosing her deepest feelings for him. Act 2 plays with fire when Onyegin turns on his closest friend, Lenski, by crossing the line, attempting to steal Lenski’s lover and all of her attention, leading to fatal consequences and an unexpected duel. It is only when Onyegin sees his friend lying dead on the ground that he realises he has made a big mistake.

The use of masks in a banquet scene in Act 3 — representative of Onegin’s loneliness and absence of love in his life — is a clever insight into Onyegin and Tatyana’s polarising characters: one was inspired by her emotions and passions; the other learned to feel too late and remains stuck in his own Byronic, wandering state. 

Kirsty McLean is adaptable for both the roles of young and old Tatyana. (It’s fascinating how a change of clothes and great acting skills can influence one’s performance.) McLean is vocally sharp and eloquent with a beguiling performance as the distraught little girl in Act 1. By the time the final act arrives, the audience is clenching their fists, angered by Onyegin’s foolish behaviour, yet sympathising with a woman who has suffered the brunt of unrequited love and the biggest rejection.

Jonny de Garis’s Onyegin is robust and vocally controlled in the first two acts, depicting a man of class and with a touch of stoicism. His most moving and heartfelt performances come in Act 3 — the entire audience was at the edge of their seats the night I attended as they watched Onyegin begging on his hands and knees for Tatyana’s forgiveness. This was perhaps the most intense scene in the opera; together McLean and Garis give an exhilarating and suspense-worthy performance to set both Tatyana and Onyegin free from the tension.

Jack Roberts (Lenski), Lara Rebekah Harvey (Tatyana’s sister) and Georgia Mae Bishop (Tatyana’s nanny) also gave terrific performances. Jack Roberts’s voice was warm and romantic; it projected effectively across the stage. His character is easy to pity,  particularly in Act 3 when we the sense Lenski’s friend was using him for his own amusement. Lara Rebekah Harvey’s singing in Act 1 is a joy to see and hear, vocally clear and graceful as Tanya’s sister. And Georgia Mae Bishop’s performance is filled with wit and delight as she tells Tatyana tales of her past loves.  Julian Charles Debreuil’s performance of ‘All men surrender to Love’s power’, as Gremin in Act 3, is brilliantly sung and full of wonder. And not forgetting to mention strong and supportive performances from Ryan Hugh Ross and Helen Rotchell.

Oneygin may not have his happy ending, yet here is a  wonderful production that demonstrates the vicissitudes of the human condition and the fragility of our emotions. In the face of rejection, one will regret but must eventually move on in order to survive. 

Opera Loki’s Yevgenyi Onyegin continues until 29 September – details and tickets here


Mary Grace Nguyen is a writer and blogger. She is creator of TrendFem, an online platform to promote the theatre, entertainment and arts scene in London, as well as independent off-West End shows and new works performed at some of best theatres in the world. Mary holds an MA in Journalism from Birkbeck College, London

 

Pictures from Opera Loki

(photo credit: Paul Mitchell)

Prom 29 had a distinctly French flavour, featuring music by Ravel and Messiaen, two composers who idolized Mozart, whose music opened the evening. The concert was bookended by two works in which dance featured strongly, from Mozart’s elegant post-Baroque ballet sequence for Idomeneo to Ravel’s swirling, breathless portrait of the disintegration of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ravel also looked to Mozart’s piano concertos as a model for his own, and the vibrant, jazzy G major concerto formed the second part of the first half of the programme, performed by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Read my full review here