It is an exceptionally fine book: erudite, digressive, urbane and deeply moving. A conductor and the author of a biography of Benjamin Britten, Mr. Kildea is a talented writer whose spark flares brightest at the level of the sentence and the phrase ... Mr. Kildea gracefully traverses the decades, his pages rich with period detail leading up to Paris’s belle epoque ... No one knows exactly what happened to it upon Landowska’s death 13 years later, and today it remains at large. With luck this outstanding book will prompt its rediscovery, and Mr. Kildea can update readers in a new afterword. This story is well worth reading again just to see how it ends.
The piano that Paul Kildea takes to be the focal point of this excellent book is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin: a striking device to get the story started. The author doesn’t know what became of the keyboard after the war, and nor does anybody else. It could be a much-loved feature of a civilised home, or it could have been cut up long ago for firewood ... This is a wonderful book about music, musicians, cultural similarities and differences, the blood and gore of revolutionary times and the compensations of high art. Kildea writes with elegance and wit, and displays the kind of scholarship that does not come simply from mugging up on a few books.
In 24 chapters (his homage to the Preludes), Kildea, a composer, pianist, and author of a biography of composer Benjamin Britten, tells a sweeping story, which only partly considers the 'search' for the instrument upon which Chopin labored in Majorca. In graceful prose, Kildea explores developments in the history of piano-making, changes in the way pianists have approached their craft, and, most luminously, the music of Chopin. Along the way, Kildea considers the idea of Romanticism, touches on European history, and offers a stimulating discussion on the evolution of nineteenth-century Paris. The reader also encounters Tolstoy, Rodin, and numerous celebrated musicians from Chopin’s time down to our own. Nor can one forget Wanda Landowska, the central figure in the second half of the book ... Upon completing this fine volume, one is tempted to shed a tear because the whereabouts of Chopin’s piano remain a mystery. Far better, though, to take comfort from the fact that his music survives. That seems a reasonable tradeoff, though it would be wonderful to find his piano.