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 Kaufman, 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.