The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces by Susan Tomes - review by Gulliver Ralston

Gulliver Ralston

Master Keys

The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces

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Yale University Press 400pp £16.99 order from our bookshop
 

It has been a dry eighteen months for live music. Completed just as lockdown began in the UK last March, these short essays open worlds of sound and history, illuminating familiar and forgotten works with succinct vignettes. They make up a book that encourages you to listen to and explore gems from the piano repertoire. Susan Tomes has chosen great pieces from across the centuries and brings them alive with just enough historical, biographical and musical context.

The book ranges from Bach to Thomas Adès (born in 1971). There are seven sections, including on the piano’s pre-history, the development of the fortepiano, the era of modernism (‘Stand up and take your dissonance like a man!’ Charles Ives once said), the influence of jazz and the piano today (subtitled ‘Minimalism and Historical Awareness’). The pre-history section feels a little sparse (if you enjoy that kind of music, pianist Kit Armstrong has just released an album of pieces by Byrd and Bull that is white hot). Later sections include many works you might expect: the big sonatas (Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor), concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg and Rachmaninoff, and epic concert works, such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Tomes, who has performed as a chamber musician with Domus and the Florestan Trio, brings into this history the role of the piano as collaborator and emphasises its versatility. She shows us a chamber instrument needing the colour provided by the violin and cello in Haydn’s Piano Trio No 39 in G major, a piano that is ‘hero/commentator/companion’ in Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, and a piano joining in with the other instruments in solidarity in Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 (‘not the most interesting part to play, but … one of his most powerful works’).

The circumstances in which this trio was written is what makes it so powerful, and Tomes is adept at sketching political and personal backgrounds with few words, letting flashes of world events break through. The trio was completed in Soviet Russia in 1944, when news had begun to filter

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