... melodious ... These pages sing like a symphony ... Ms. Roberts puts artistic coherence first, as a writer should ... Ms. Roberts [is] a robust and diligent researcher ... As Ms. Roberts adroitly weaves personal quest with Russian history, vignettes feature splinter communities of Old Believers ... The author quotes widely, from early travelers to the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and, of course, Chekhov, who made his own journey, delightfully recounted, across Siberia to Sakhalin Island ... Throughout her prodigious travels Ms. Roberts emerges as a fine descriptive writer...She understands the crucial role of specificity in a traveler’s prose ... Notwithstanding the occasional cliché and weak phrase, Ms. Roberts’s prose is on the whole a model of style and clarity. She controls the narrative drive as if with a pianist’s foot pedals and modulates the tone between the flats of long motor journeys and the sharps of emotional intensity.
[Roberts'] travels are bold and sociable, and our vicarious pleasure ... Quest-travel books are a rich subgenre, and Roberts is indefatigable. She is serious and never ironic about the quest. She loves pianos and pianists but she also loves the stories they bring to light. And she’s an ace reporter, mixing with locals and officials, tracking rumors. Her informants become pals. She follows their leads through snow squalls and mosquito swarms ... The hunt gives her a mission to push through the hermetic norms of prevailing culture, which mostly obliges her, revealing its secret strength of kindness; her mission and her nature seem fortunately shaped to bring out the best in people ... Roberts reveals herself slowly and is terrific company, our acute, busy, sympathetic and scattered guide. She’s always got several plates spinning — dramatic historic anecdotes, emotive narratives about the piano of the moment, the building it’s in, the neighborhood’s heritage, the parallel adventures of prior literary travelers ... So, it’s hardly a history text, more a series of intriguing chats on the human condition with a charming friend excited to share specifics of what she’s experienced and discovered. By page 100, I’d settled in, sipping vodka as I read happily on about piano lore, foul-weather adventures, gossipy history, a cast mainly of hospitable locals, and ultimately, as in the best travel books, glad for the fine company of the author.
Much of The Lost Pianos of Siberia consists of neat summaries of major events in Russian history ... This is not a book for readers already familiar with Russian history. Nor is it a book for music buffs. There are many pianos, but there is remarkably little about music. Roberts’s descriptions of landscapes are as lovely as fine embroidery, but when she searches for words to describe music she comes up empty ... Like Lenin’s corpse, a very old piano will have to be reconstituted from new materials if it is to persevere. But Roberts loves a relic ... This is the magical approach to objects that prevails in house museums, which rely on possessions as a kind of spirit medium. But a reader cannot finger the keys of these instruments or peep inside at the strings and hammers, touching the piano and communing with its former owner. A reader is reading, and words will have to do.
...a richly absorbing account of Siberia over the last 250 years, as Roberts zigzags her way from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s far east ... Roberts’s research – she appeals for information in local newspapers, on radio stations and TV – gives rise to memorable encounters and interviews ... Roberts locates another lost piano in Kolyma’s principal town, Magadan, after spotting it in a 1940s photograph of the prisoner-constructed Magadan theatre, where persecuted musicians had no choice but to play. The Lost Pianos of Siberia is as much elegy as detective story.
The book recounts several wild goose chases and dead ends and visits to places, such as the disputed Kurile Islands, where there never was any hope of finding a piano. But no matter: the pianos are an excuse to travel to far-off places, indulge oneself in history, meet interesting people and tell stories, all of which Robert does with abandon ... Roberts’s writing can be lush and romantic, almost to a fault ... She tracks her pianos like a detective, following leads and interviewing witnesses. She has a thing about piano serial numbers; all are noted. She is at least self-aware about it all...
To say that Sophy Roberts’ The Lost Pianos of Siberia is among the unexpected works of history in recent memory is an understatement ... Admitting that she perceives Siberia through Western eyes, Roberts taps into the seductive mystery the land holds for outsiders ... Roberts peppers the narrative with a thousand concrete details. She succinctly charts the emergence of the piano as a favored instrument in Russia ... a fact-finding mission as interesting for its digressions as any conclusions ... Writing energetically in the first person, Roberts roams freely from one tangent to another. She communicates her excitement at playing detective as well as her passion for bringing to life an unfamiliar place. And what of her initial mission to locate a worthy instrument for her pianist friend from Mongolia? Let’s just say that Roberts’ journey was worth it on that score, too.
The origins of this title’s 'lost pianos' start with the mass manufacture of the instruments in Russia beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Their production was inspired, English travel writer Roberts writes, by a national fever dream over the arrival—more pointedly, the playing—of Franz Liszt in St. Petersburg in 1842. With the banishment of millions of Russians over the decades to tsarist prisons, later gulags, in the unimaginably vast Siberian expanse, the pianos followed, establishing cultural beachheads that Roberts seeks out here in digressive, hopscotch fashion, with a passion bordering on obsessive ... Roberts has a splendid eye for detail, whether in the history and flavor of the cities and regions she visits or in the living, breathing people she encounters on this almost otherworldy journey.
In this luminous travelogue, journalist Roberts travels through Siberia looking for historically significant pianos, which she sees as symbols of civilization, refinement, and artistic freedom amid vast, frigid wildernesses and primitive settlements scarred by Russia’s bloody revolutions and barbaric gulags. Her quest also serves as a vehicle for her to investigate Siberia’s dramatic past ... The book is an eccentric meander, but Roberts’s mix of colorful history, rich reportage, and lyrical prose...makes for a beguiling narrative.