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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Guest review by Hilary Haworth

Lifting the lid on the intrigue and intense rivalries of the concert artist’s world, That Iron String unearths shocking violence with quite clinical detachment, in a way that endures the story will live with the reader for some time after the turning of the final page.

Two healthy baby boys are discovered, together with three corpses, on an abandoned boat off the north shore of Long Island. Port and Boston are raised by those presumed to be family in separate houses on the same street, both become accomplished pianists but Port, our narrator, stays local while his cousin takes to the road on the competition circuit. After ten years of silence, Boston’s piano arrives, then several letters from him, which the family inexplicably leave unopened. When he finally puts in an appearance in person, it is with a train of notoriety – disastrous competitions, a public seemingly turning against him, bizarre accidents befalling those close to him…

As a core fan of the crime fiction genre, with a great interest in the unusual and intriguing world of competitive pianism,  I really should have loved this novel.

However, it is peppered with structural and technical flaws that ultimately make Jack Kohl’s This Iron String an unsatisfactory read.

From the brief synopsis above, one might expect an atmosphere of menace and mystery to build from the start. But Kohl makes such efforts to avoid sensationalism that his novel is simply too clean and quiet to successfully engage our curiosity.  It is like a pianist misjudging an opening pianissimo, making a sound too shy to draw us in.  This reticence lasts well into the second half of the novel.

Port is also highly proprietorial about his own narrative.  He hands out those details he thinks we warrant knowing in miserly portions, and always reported in his own words, so that his characters seem entrapped by his summaries and corrections.

This is odd in that large parts of the book are in the form of letters from Boston, the enfant terrible who is marked out for pianistic glory. But Boston’s voice is so very like Port’s in its didactic self-importance that this doesn’t truly freshen things.

As events take a darker turn, Boston’s letters increasingly  substitute unhinged but very intellectual rants for Port’s poetic forays. For there is true poetry here, small prose poems trapped in the novel like jewels in sand, or like a rich subterranean tenor melody which the pianist’s left hand sustains beneath a stern and chromatic étude. A beautiful description of child’s play at a piano is one particularly enjoyable one, although most such moments are more sombre.

Direct speech is so rare in this novel that when it comes it has the shock value of colloquial spoken language in an opera. Unfortunately Kohl’s conversational dialogue never seems to be character-revealing or quirky but is nearly always dully functional. As a result, every character is shadowy, practically gagged, filtered as they are through the reporting of them by Port. People become types- the gym-honed divorcée, the vain and absentee conservatoire professor, the woolly headed elderly aunt.  Even a late-night, whispered phone conversation between Port and Lana, a childhood almost-sweetheart, is glossed in this way.  Port tunes us out almost at “hello” and tells us we would be better to hear just his own version of events as his memory is better!

One is left with many unanswered questions so in some ways the book does succeed in living on in the mind long after it is put down. Unfortunately this is mainly because the mysteries, miracles and murder that are at work through the plot seem to hold absolutely no curiosity for Port, his family, the conservatoire –  or even the local crime department!

There is certainly much evidence of poetic promise here.  But sadly, what lingered for me was not fascination but more a sense of disappointment. An undoubtedly inspired idea for a narrative – and a setting rich with dramatic possibility – had sadly been submerged by an incomplete technical and interpretive mastery.  

‘That Iron String’ by Jack Kohl is published by The Pauktaug Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers