In 2015, writer and journalist Sophy Roberts was in Mongolia where she met a talented young Mongolian pianist called Odgerel Sampilnorov, the protegée of a mutual German friend, filmmaker Franz-Christoph Giercke. She had no piano of her own, and inspired by the Daniel Mason novel The Piano Tuner, Gierke suggested that perhaps Sophie could locate “of the lost pianos of Siberia”. Giercke didn’t just want the piano: he wanted the story.
So off Roberts goes. “I knew the entire endeavour had been inflected with a measure of madness,” she writes with uncharacteristic understatement.
Russians have loved pianos since they were invented. The Decembrists (the failed aristocratic revolutionaries of 1825) took pianos with them into Siberian exile. Russians imported the best pianos from overseas while the Russian piano-making industry that soon sprung up also produced excellent instruments, including those that found their way into numerous ordinary homes. Pianos were pulled on sledges and sent by ship. Russian and Soviet music education was excellent; many, many people played.
Actual pianos prove, especially those of any quality, unsurprisingly to be relatively few and far between: a revolution, political purges, the post-Soviet crash and the general tribulations of Siberia had all intervened. 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.
She sees a wild tiger; she meets an Afghan War veteran who’s a bell-ringer, several piano-tuners including an entire family of them in Novosibirsk, an ethnic Nenets composer way up in the Yamal Peninsula, various poets; she goes to the one-time Russian city of Harbin, the last residence of Tsar Nicholas and Magadan, the staging point for the Gulag. She recounts many stories of musicians in Russia from the Italian composer Païsiello (who is crowned with a French dieresis) to tenor Vadim Kozin and French pianist Vera Lotar-Shevchenko. Kozin was an extremely popular singer who fell foul of Stalin and ended up in Magadan. Vera Lotar had married a Russian in Rome, followed him back to Leningrad in 1939 and ended up with a spell as a political prisoner. After her release, she stayed, and her talent rediscovered.
Siberia is a big place that inspires big, and sometimes romantically mad, ideas:
[Siberia] is a melancholy, a cinematic romance dipped in limpid moonshine, unhurried train journeys, pipes wrapped in sackcloth, and a broken swing hanging from a squeaky chain.
Roberts’s writing can be lush and romantic, almost to a fault. When describing Maria, the wife of Decembrist Prince Sergei Volkonsky, who followed him into exile, taking a clavichord with her:
It was a remarkable journey, the instrument travelling all the way from Moscow to the eastern side of Lake Baikal. What the local Buryats would have made of this Russian princess as they watched her passage across the lake is hard to picture. The Buryats thought the Milky Way was ‘a stitched seam’, and the stars the holes in the sky. When meteors flashed, Siberia’s indigenous tribes described it as the gods peeling back ‘the sky-cover to see what is happening on Earth’. The sight of Maria bundled up in her ermine furs must have appeared out of this world to them, like a visitation from another planet.
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:
Siberia is a very fine place indeed for travellers in pursuit of the adrenaline which truly adventurous travel imparts. Was it all just a grand romance? A nostalgic, picaresque quest for the exotic? A chase for the object of desire rather than its achievement, marked by marvels, monsters and eccentric diversions? Or was it just another contribution to the annals of travel into the Siberian absurd? There was a good tradition in them.
But, wonder of wonders, Roberts actually finds a piano for Odgerel Sampilnorov: a 1930s German upright from Grotrian-Steinweg, model 120, serial number 63216, at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre. There must have been easier ways to procure a piano for Mongolia, but it would not have had such a history:
To my knowledge, the Grotrian-Steinweg … is the only piano of its kind in Mongolia, and continues to sing with one of the most beautiful voices I ever heard in two years of searching. Cantabile, Odgerel calls it, after its singing voice: tender, smooth, vulnerable and full of feeling, with a rich, warm bass and a silver treble, the hammers delivering keen, precise blows to achieve a perfect clarity… It was as if she were revealing the singing heart of the instrument…
So was this all a set-up, just an excuse for a book? Or instead is a piano that was sitting unplayed in a room in Novosibirsk now being used for concerts on the steppe? You can listen to Odgerel Sampilnorov playing on-line and decide for yourself.