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Largo for non-pianists, Andante for the rest of us
on 17 October 2001
Non-pianists may dismiss Carhart's paean to the piano as excruciatingly slow, but friends of the instrument, whether listeners or players, will find much to enjoy here. There are patches, such as when the piano is moved into Carhart's apartment, where even professional pianists such as myself are moved to cry, "So what?" But for understanding the beauty of lemonwood or ash instruments and for learning the subtleties which distinguished the French instruments (Gaveau, Pleyel) from the German (Steinway, etc.) and the American (Chickering, Mason & Hamlin), this is an unbeatable source.
Carhart's odyssey of pianism moves at a gentle andante. Ostensibly it charts his growing familiarity with a Paris atelier run by the capable, enigmatic Luc, filled with old pianos. Carhart maintains the pace by toggling between the real characters and "slice of life" anecdotes (all bound by love of pianos), and the many differing aspects of his subject.
Along the way, he takes in the history of the piano, piano workings, tuning, and technology - including everything from spruce woods to metal brackets, strings, frames, etc. We are also treated to descriptions of lessons - and piano teachers - from beginning to masterclass level. Carhart vividly communicates the influence of Madame Gaillard, Miss Pemberton, and Anna on his learning abilities and his technique. The differing approaches in the masterclasses with Peter Feuchtwanger and Gyorgy Sebok are of particular interest.
Pianists will empathise with Carhart's horror of playing in public, but in sharing this book with us he has laid his musicianship, ability and perceptions on the line. It is full of good descriptions and homespun philosophy, atmospheric and didactic. The courtyards and quaint corners of Paris are lovingly rendered. It is above all a work of appreciation. The hero of the book is the piano.