Quest For Piano Leads Writer To Adventures, Stories Across Siberia

Franz-Christoph Giercke spends his summers in a Mongolian ger (round tent), where his Yamaha piano’s sound suffers in the harsh climate of the steppes. (Photos by Michael Turek)

The Lost Pianos of Siberia. Sophy Roberts. Grove Atlantic, 448 pages.

BOOK REVIEW — Every morning, Olga Leonidovna greets her mother’s portrait and kisses her piano. The piano, an 1896 Bechstein baby grand, has quite a history: After World War II — or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War — two women exchanged the instrument for a sack of potatoes. Leonidovna had talent and a mentor, and neighbors in her Siberian village of Bogashevo helped her parents buy the Bechstein from the postwar buyer. The piano has been with Leonidova ever since, and she vows never to part with the instrument she calls “noble, kind and demanding.”

The story of the Bechstein, like so many of the stories in Sophy Roberts‘ thrilling The Lost Pianos of Siberia, is indelibly tied to place and era. Roberts is a British journalist who specializes in remote travel, and she comes to Siberia with a daunting, complicated, and musically noble quest: to find the perfect lost piano for her friend, Italian-trained Mongolian concert pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov.

Roberts and Sampilnorov met as summer house guests of a mutual friend, Franz-Christoph Giercke, who spends his summers in a Mongolian ger (round tent). In the ger, Sampilnorov had been playing Giercke’s Yamaha, but the piano’s sound was suffering in the harsh climate of the steppes. Giercke whispered a challenge to Roberts: “We must find her one of the lost pianos of Siberia!”

Giercke, whom Roberts describes as having a “little bit of Kurtz to him,” knew Roberts would be interested in the challenge, and he plied her with words that stirred her journalist’s heart. “If you, Sophy, would find a piano and bring it here, our story would be real.” What travel journalist could turn down a story like that?

A further incentive was Roberts’ longtime fascination with Siberia itself, and she was increasingly intrigued by the lost pianos’ connections with the people, history, culture, geography, and politics of the region. She writes, “Only when I started travelling deep into the Russan forest did I realize I could no more unsnag the idea of Siberia’s lost pianos than set out coatless into cold so extreme it makes your tears freeze into the lines around your eyes.” She was hooked.

As she traveled, Roberts learned, perhaps not surprisingly, that brutally cold Siberia was full of pianos. The Russian and Soviet systems had valued music education, and, despite war, foul weather, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and abandonment, Siberian pianos stood in houses and schools throughout the region.

For her part, the determined Roberts pursued any lead that came her way. She retraced routes of cultured political exiles whose families (and instruments) were sometimes allowed to accompany them to Siberian prisons, but she found nothing promising. In Irkutsk, formerly known as “the Paris of Siberia,” she made an appointment with a tuner who owned forty historic instruments; he stood her up. She even followed the scent to the remote Altai Mountains, where a former Aeroflot navigator was building a concert hall in his house.

Author Sophy Roberts set out on a journey to find the perfect lost piano for her friend, Italian-trained Mongolian concert pianist Odgerel Sampilnorov, above.

Roberts was also on the trail of the Romanovs. When Nicholas II abdicated in 1917, he and his family were taken to Tobolsk, in western Siberia, and then to the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. The Romanovs played a grand piano in the Ekaterinburg house, and the piano was rumored to have survived the massacre of the family. Unfortunately, however, Roberts, like so many Romanov scholars and fans, was ultimately disappointed: The piano, along with almost everything else in the Ekaterinburg house, had been destroyed.

Perhaps the heart of the book is Roberts’ visit to the southwest city of Novosibirsk, home to the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, Russia’s largest opera house. The theater is huge (Roberts notes that “Soviet tractors could be driven from the street to the stage”), and, during the Great Patriotic War, cultural treasures evacuated from Moscow and Leningrad were stored in the the vast building. The exiled Leningrad Philharmonic, too, stayed in Novosibirsk, and the theater provided a safe setting for the 1942 premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Included in the performance was a Steinway, which had, of course, fallen off the map.

Undaunted, Roberts made her way to the opera house tuner, Igor Lomatchenko; perhaps he could help her find the Steinway. He couldn’t, but he lovingly described the many pianos in his care, including a modern Steinway grand and a Grotrian-Steinweg upright from 1930s Germany. Lomatchenko explained that the upright had “seen a great deal. I can hear it in the way it plays.”

Lomatchenko is one of a family of tuners, and he delighted in introducing Roberts to his father Vasily and his sons Evgeniy and Kostya. Roberts found Kostya particularly endearing: He cried when he met her, touched that a “stranger” wanted to know about his work. His love for pianos fairly jumps off the page.

Roberts’ final stop was Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border and the Sea of Japan. She was looking for the original owner of a Russian-made Stürzwage grand piano that had been built before the Russian Revolution. Ultimately, Roberts was able to find her.

The Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, Russia’s largest opera house, was the site for the 1942 premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, which included a Steinway that had fallen off the map.

The owner, Nina Alexandrovna, was 86 and blind. The Stürzwage, she said, was “the story of my childhood.” When she was a year old, her parents sent her to live with her Aunt Lena, and it was Lena who bought the piano. “The top board of the piano looked like the shape of the African continent. Which is why we named the piano Africa,” Alexandrovna said. Soon, Alexandrovna’s toy animals sat on the lid. As an adult, she became a zoologist.

Roberts writes that Alexandrovna remained “full of fire for the things she loved….To Nina, Siberia was no heart of darkness: it was the Appassionata — an experience of such intensity, it had worked its way deep into her magnificent Russian soul.”

Alexandrovna’s story, like the history of Siberia, is long and complicated, but it is also entrancing. Roberts conveys her own fascination by supplying extensive historical and geographical context for each area she visits. This background is of course interesting, but it is also necessary; Siberia is terra incognita to many readers.

In the end, it is the people of Siberia who most fascinate, and Roberts is a fine travel guide. Along the way, she remains true to the goal of finding Sampilnorov’s lost piano, and, at last, she accomplishes her task. Her choice is apt both musically and sentimentally, but the choice will not be revealed here. Doing so would destroy the mystery of this riveting book.

To learn more about the book (and to hear Odgerel Sampilnorov play), go here.