Guest review by Michael Johnson

International Acclaim: One Piano, Eight Hands is a factional novel by Michael Lawson told by an omniscient narrator who slips seamlessly in and out of anonymity as the action unfolds. Four generations of the talented but fictional Steinfeld family parade through the plot, performing in the piano’s golden age, the height of the Romantics. Many of the greats appear – Rachmaninov, Godowsky, Taneyev, Siloti, Hoffmann, Medtner, Moiseiwitsch, Friedman, Gabrilowitsch, Blumenfeld, Schnabel and one of Lawson’s own teachers, the “tender tyrant” Nadia Boulanger.

Readers must be on their toes as 68 characters rotate to keep the narration spinning. Lawson’s knowledge of 19th century Europe through his Polish ancestors enrich the story, notably with several scenes of terrible tragedy – fictional injuries in fires, psychological conflict, the near extinction of the family name in a Polish pogrom, and finally the death in public of the latest family star, Daniyal.

This novel is nothing short of a Tolstoian epic.

Author Lawson is up to the task. He is an accomplished pianist and composer, retired archdeacon of the Church of England and author of some 14 books. Rounding out his career, he is also a trained psychotherapist who has worked with several pianists, including child prodigies. He brings all these strands together in a breathless story.

“I am and always have been fascinated by the great Romantic pianists,” he tells me in email exchanges over several days. It shows.

Originally inspired by accounts of virtuoso Simon Barere’s death in 1951 at a Carnegie Hall recital, Lawson says he “knew how the novel would end but not how it would begin”. The story occupied his attention for some 40 years, the last six months of which were dedicated to non-stop research and writing six days a week. For easy reading, he has structured his story in five ”movements”, each consisting of several brief chapters, some only two pages long.

He takes interesting detours to fill in backdrop of the environment – the German bombing of London, the pogrom in Lvov (now Lviv) in 1918, Jewish family life, piano competitions and the history of the piano. The subtitle takes its name from the fictional four generations of virtuosi – imagining his main players, Abramczyk, Aleksander, Daniyal, and Kovi making music together, on one piano, eight hands.

Lawson brings in a sub-theme of exceptional interest, the phenomenon of the child prodigy, an accident that he estimates occur once in five or ten million births. He invokes his therapeutic expertise to warn of over-praise of prodigies from family and the public. “Can a child ever receive too much love? … We are now discovering that sustained exaggerations of esteem from parents or any circles of admiring approval can be harmful.” (It) can inhibit the growth of a healthy and robust, self-critical super-ego.”

The great teacher Leschetizky carries on, cautioning that an “excess of applause at an early age may help cerate unhealthy performance appetites in later life”. Audiences sometimes help create such the prodigy, and, adds Lawson: “ … some will flock to see a child perform as they might jostle for the best seat at the circus.” Aleksander’s parents stepped in to slow the process. They decided that he would not undertake public concerts until his seventh birthday.

Lawson’s career at the piano also translates into some of the more dramatic passages in the repertoire. Discussing Chopin’s Etude No. 11 op 25 (“Winter Wind”), he writes of the pianist’s intense concentration in the slow theme at the outset. “Then, like an exploding volcano, a tumultuous cascade of sixteenth notes erupted from the top of the keyboard; the left hand leaping in punctuation fury, driving forward the rhythm of the raging wind and sudden lighting flashes, and the final theme, bringing Chopin’s death-defying Etude … to its breathless conclusion.”

(performed here by Yulianna Avdeeva):

Lawson takes a swipe at pianists whose acrobatics onstage “let us know they have danced with death and prevailed”. “Their shoulders rise and fall with their heavy breathing, their hands run maniacally through their tousled hair (and) they practically swoon there on stage in front of us.” He adds that Franz Liszt was the inventor of this “bizarre behaviour”. Many of today’s prominent players have gone further. Lang Lang, for example, wears makeup and winks at the audience between swoons while bouncing on the piano bench.

Family life is enlivened with the joy of Jewish humour and culture. At one point, Aleksander receives in the post an invitation to perform with the New York Philharmonic. The family and guests burst into a singing, dancing version of the popular Russian folk song “Kalinka My Kalinka” gradually ratcheting up the tempo to breakneck speed.

The dance is performed here:

The text is peppered with tips on piano performance, one of which is the need to practice relaxing. “Remember that tension is the enemy,” Lawson writes. “It squeezes glue all over the keyboard and in all kinds of ways gums up your playing.”

Critical reception to the novel has thus far been favourable, as has reader reaction. One reader wrote to Lawson that the connections and convergences in the plot are “so beautifully written, it brought me to tears.”

I know of no other writer who can draw on such a varied and pertinent background and weave them into a single tale.

Why did Lawson set himself the monumental task of researching and writing this epic? This book might seen as swan song or a cathartic exercise, but Lawson disagrees. He considers it it as “a celebration of music, musicians, and the creative spirit that animates my present and future.” I totally agree.

International Acclaim: One Piano—Eight Hands by Michael Lawson is available from Amazon.


Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano. 

He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

Michael Lawson is a Psychotherapist, Composer, Writer, Film Maker and Broadcaster. His varied career began in music as a composer and concert pianist in the early seventies, having studied with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Paris and Fontainebleau conservatoires, with the British composer Edmund Rubbra at the Guildhall School of Music, and at Sussex University with Donald Mitchell, the leading Britten and Mahler scholar. His piano professors were David Wilde and James Gibb.

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I finally got round the watching John Bridcut’s film of Winterreise, with baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist James Baillieu. I’m a great admirer of Bridcut’s films, in particular those about Benjamin Britten, and this new film of Winterreise is immensely appealing in both setting and, of course, the music. It’s filmed in Switzerland, in and around the extraordinarily striking Julier Tower, a remarkable modern theatre constructed of wood and glass whose stark, blood-red walls contrast sharply with the snow-covered landscape in which it stands. The scene is set immediately, with Benjamin Appl trudging through deep snow, in a snow storm (apparently, the snow began to fall just before filming began). Here is Schubert’s lonely wanderer, having left the house of his beloved, cast out on a journey of reflection on love, love lost, regret, sorrow, the torment of reawakening hope and the journey to resignation. Set to poems by Wilhelm Müller, this is a literal and metaphorical journey for the protagonist.

I love this music (and as regular readers/followers know, I love the music of Schubert in general, and his later piano music in particular), and I’ve heard Winterreise in concert on a number of occasions, each one of them moving and memorable – Ian Bostridge with Mitsuko Uchida, in English translation with Roderick Williams and Chris Glyn, in a modern reworking in Zender’s Winterreise (also with Bostridge) and most recently sung by mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager with Julius Drake, on one of the hottest days of the year back in the summer of 2018. Each time I have found much to ponder in this, perhaps the finest song cycle by Schubert, or indeed anyone else….

Ian Bostridge in Zender’s Winterreise

There is no denying the arresting grandeur of the setting of Bridcut’s Winterreise. Bright white, deep snow, stunning Alpine peaks – and that curious modern structure set amidst it all. Appl is as striking as the landscape, as perfectly chiselled as those mountains, with deep blue eyes which burn with passion or glaze with tears in the more poignant songs or passages, or occasionally fix the viewer with an unsettling directness which only adds to the power of Müller’s text and Schubert’s music. He has a wonderfully clear, clean voice, with a range from a whispered pianissimo (the level of control here is impressive) to raging fortissimo. James Baillieu, playing a gorgeous Bösendorfer piano, whose case (was it rosewood?) seems to hark back to a Schubert- era instrument, brings depth and clarity to the music. He avoids ponderousness in the darker songs and there are moments of delicious sweetness or tender poignancy – in Der Lindenbaum or Frühlingstraum, for example – but it is in the darker or more desolate songs that Baillieu really portrays the wanderer’s predicament, often simply through judiciously placed single notes or a fractional pause (agogic accent) before placing a note (Gefrorne Tränen, for example). The closing song, Der Leiermann, is absolutely devastating in its spare simplicity.

The performance of the music is first class, really engaging, and both singer and pianist deftly capture Schubert’s shifting emotions, curious harmonic shifts (as Baillieu says in one of the commentaries, the shift from major to minor in Schubert is like moving from one universe to another). The songs are occasionally interspersed with commentary by Appl and Baillieu (less frequently) on the music, and there’s a wonderful segment of Appl in conversation with Brigitte Fassbaender, discussing the appropriateness of this music for the female voice as well as the male.

But I have to admit, I found quite a lot of the film distracting. Pondering this after the event, I suspect it is because I have my own internal image of the lonely wanderer and for me, he (or she) is not in an awe-inspiring Alpine landscape, but rather trudging along a snowy road, in a flat, featureless landscape only occasionally relieved by a signpost, a village, a stream….. I also found some of Appl’s acting a little contrived – he didn’t always seem entirely comfortable (and presumably quite cold!) out in the snow drifts, and for me, he was always far more convincing when inside with Baillieu (and there are some wonderful moments when he sings seated at the pianist’s side, a nod, perhaps, to the way the songs would have been performed in Schubert’s day). Also, I don’t need visual cues to understand the narrative – but for this reason, I think the film is an excellent introduction for the Winterreise ingénue, the narrative compellingly matched in striking images and impressive sound quality which allows us to fully appreciate and enjoy composer, music and of course the musicians.

Winterreise is available via the BBC iPlayer and Marquee TV

Listen to a podcast with Benjamin Appl

Benjamin Appl’s new recording of Winterreise, with James Baillieu, is available on the Alpha Classics label

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