cover image The Piano Student

The Piano Student

Lea Singer, trans. from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer. New Vessel, $16.95 trade paper (230p) ISBN 978-1-939931-86-3

Based on correspondence between virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz and a young Swiss student, Nico Kaufmann, Singer’s astute, elegiac English-language debut reconstructs the pair’s amorous liaison in the lead-up to WWII. The story begins with a rather contrived framing device: in 1986, suicidal Swiss diplomat Reto Donati walks into a Zurich piano bar and asks to hear Schumann’s brief, wistful “Traumerei,” a piece he had heard Horowitz play 30 years earlier. Kaufmann, working as the bar’s piano player, fulfills the request, then tells Donati of his long-ago affair with Horowitz, who was languishing in a marriage of convenience to the domineering daughter of maestro Arturo Toscanini. Under the guise of a piano tutorship, Horowitz and Kaufmann had clandestine trysts across Europe, Kaufmann becoming an “acrobat” in accommodating the cagy, closeted Horowitz and enacting “diplomatic solutions, peaceable evasions, and sleights of hand that made life easier for everyone.” Their secrecy contrasts with what Kaufmann calls the “emotional truth” of Horowitz’s art, which Horowitz valued far beyond any personal or political entanglements. After Kaufmann recounts how Horowitz broke off their relationship and correspondence, emotionally immersive scenes give way to less gripping, clipped biographical passages. Still, Singer effectively conveys Horowitz’s genius at achieving a “miracle of tone.” At its best, this nostalgic tale of repressed desire is as affecting as Schumann’s haunting tune. (Oct.)