At the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, Mr Bean famously played a single note repeatedly on an electric keyboard, to the staged fury of the conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Scroll forward two years to the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and you encounter a rather different attempt to capture national character through the piano. On that occasion a piano emerged from beneath the stage amid smoke and fireworks, and Denis Matsuev delivered a virtuosic performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Audiences went wild at both events, but for very different reasons. From Dudley Moore to Rowan Atkinson via Eric Morecambe, the British have poked fun at the perceived pomposity of pianists. Russians, on the other hand, have treasured pianists, from Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter to Evgeny Kissin and Matsuev, and set them at the heart of their national identity. Showing no mean ambition, Sophy Roberts’s intriguing, engaging and thought-provoking travelogue The Lost Pianos of Siberia seeks to open up Russian musical devotion for an English-speaking audience.
There’s a confessedly quixotic element to Roberts’s quest for pianos in the furthest recesses of Siberia. She is not a pianist or even a musician, but the idea of searching for these most civilised of objects in far-flung locations gripped her imagination. At times, Roberts draws parallels between her own ambitions and those of a colonial traveller looking to ‘bag’ rare finds: early on she gives an account of sighting a Siberian tiger and expresses the hope that this will bring her good luck on her musical quest. While travelling through the often impoverished remains of the Soviet Union, Roberts is enabled by her (comparative) wealth to seek out and, in the end, to buy a rare old piano for a friend.
Overall, what shines through in this book is Roberts’s genuine, humane affection for and fascination with the people she meets in Siberia. We get almost as few sightings of pianos as of Siberian tigers. This is most definitely not an account of a heroic quest to uncover Bechsteins in out-of-the-way