An old man contemplates his life with music: “Self-Portrait With Russian Piano”

On May 2, 1957, 24-year-old Canadian Glenn Gould became the first North American pianist to play behind the Iron Curtain. The concert hall in Moscow was barely half full as he began his recital. After intermission, when he returned to the stage to play the second half of his program, the concert hall was bursting to the seams of its seating capacity: people had rushed to phone their friends during the intermission to tell them they must immediately come to the concert hall to hear a genius.

In Wolf Wondratschek’s contemplative new novel Self-Portrait With Russian Piano, translated from the German by Marshall Yarbrough, this vivid scene — an actual event — is depicted by a once celebrated Soviet pianist, Suvorin, as he chats with our anonymous narrator in a Vienna coffee house. He was there, he says, in his young years, as were his friends Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels.

Unlike Suvorin, Richter and Gilels are real, 20th century, famously known Soviet concert pianists. Their mentions give the fictional story realistic heft, along with the mentions of other famous musicians throughout the novel, brief mentions that storytellers make when sharing their lives, assuming the listener’s knowledge. When Suvorin tells of a visit with cellist Heinrich Schiff (also real), we get Schiff’s rant about an irritating experience with an upstart, self-important, young American conductor.

Callas would’ve bitten his head off, one of the musicians in the orchestra assured me after rehearsal, an older, elegant, distinguished gentleman, a dyed-in-the-wool Italian.

That gave me a laugh, but it will puzzle readers who do not recognize opera’s legendary diva Maria Callas. You don’t have to know and love opera or classical music to cherish this slim story; however, it does help, for the novel’s passion and angst and grit rise from the world of classical music, and getting the references heightens the enjoyment.

Born in Leningrad and a witness to the horrific WWII siege, Suvorin arrived in Moscow to study when he was 15 years old. He talks about the “rare hours” before sunrise when he practiced because “whatever is played before midnight sounds like nothing.” He does not keep up with the piano now. He lacks “all the necessary strength,” he says, describing himself as “a smelly old person in a dark apartment.” A young violinist visits him for advice. “We speak in our language,” Suvorin says, and it is this language — and the beauty created on the keyboard before sunrise — that forced him off the stage for good. He could not stand the applause, the bravos, the flowers, all that social kitsch that slays the magic. The noise filled him with rage.

The final note, it hasn’t even completely faded yet — and immediately you get screaming, noise, people shouting bravo. Not a moment of quiet, not even half a second. What ignorant people! What barbarians!

Suvorin’s recounting is not a birth-to-old-age chronology, rather the digressions of a long conversation experienced over several meetings. We learn about students Suvorin taught at the conservatory, the fate of his career when resisting the applause, and the death of his beloved wife. His visit with the aforementioned Schiff, a sharing of the cellist’s story, offers an idea of what Suvorin would’ve experienced if he hadn’t quit the stage — from owning a Rolls-Royce to the horrific loneliness in hotel rooms.

The majority of the story engages, but at times it fails to sustain a vivid grip due to a challenging, stylistic shift in the storytelling voice between the narrator and Suvorin that regularly isn’t clearly indicated. Often I thought the narrator was speaking but it was Suvorin, and vice versa. I had to break concentration and trace backward in the prose to where I got lost. The confusion and effort became frustrating.

I didn’t give up, though, for the rewards of this story are vast and rich, as Self-Portrait With Russian Piano evocatively explores the demanding life of a classical concert pianist: the passion to get it right, the rivalry, the sacrifices, and being constantly “in search of the pure sound of truth.” That is a unique life space and emotion, and I savored reading this excellent fictional grasp of it.

The mortal sin with Schubert is trying to play him perfectly. It makes no sense, none at all. You have to do the opposite, you have to — how should I put it — it’s more like you have to play him clumsily, a little tipsily, or better yet, drunkenly, helplessly, shakily, almost ignorantly with an understanding, an inkling at least of an era in which people, even if they did cut loose and dance, still felt shame, still blushed.

In the end, the narrator loses touch with Suvorin and second guesses himself in what he heard. He feels mystery and wonder over what he experienced, which is just as Suvorin would wish it, that his listener reflect on the concert of his spoken stories, quietly and memorably, being magically moved.

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