The Concert Pianist by Conrad Williams

The stress of playing Chopin
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Reading the opening pages of The Concert Pianist, you may feel that you've stumbled upon a male version of Joanna Trollope. There's a cosy house in the country, a walled garden, Camilla (a Sunday Telegraph reader) - even a mention of Agas. But put aside all thoughts of pretty middle England. Conrad Williams only shows you the rural idyll in order to destroy it. His story is about to set such a house alight, and burn up everyone in it.

A better point of comparison might be Ian McEwan, whose Saturday anatomised the life of a neurosurgeon. Williams does the same for another professional whose working life is out of the reach of most mortals: the concert pianist. And Philip Morahan, like McEwan's Henry Perowne, is not an easy man to love. Irremediably middle-class - when he tries to cheer himself by shopping, he goes for books and fresh coffee; when he seduces women, he lowers them onto his recamier - he finds himself unbuttoned by spiritual crisis, something for which his long-suffering agent, John, has little sympathy. But Philip engages ours, partly because his sufferings, though triggered by events alien to most of us (say, the inability to play Chopin's "funeral march" sonata on stage at the South Bank), are so universal.

It isn't virgin territory - the fiftysomething-male midlife crisis, the brush with mortality, the fear that a life's work has been a waste of time - but what makes it involving and enjoyable is Williams' skill in expressing what it feels like to play, or to flunk, a great piece of music. It's no surprise to learn that Williams is a gifted amateur pianist. What his musician's touch has also given him is a great sense of tempo. The run-up to Philip's non-appearance on the concert stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall is unbearable: you can feel every hammered heartbeat, each clench of his sweating palms.

There are things, outside the musical sphere, which ring less true. Ursula, Philip's new agent, seems little more than an andropausal fantasy figure. Williams almost circumvents the criticism by having Philip express much the same opinion; if they hadn't ended up on the recamier together, I might have forgiven it more easily. There are great pen-portraits of the musician as monster: one character describes them as "people whose talents so far exceed their social skills that sometimes I feel I'm conversing with a pair of hands attached to a life-support system". Sometimes, though, the simplest, most affecting images - a dying man who clings "like an old rag" to the gate on which he's sitting - sit cheek-by-jowl with the pretentious ("a culminatory Mondnacht to be relished for the last time").

Perhaps, if I were a classical pianist, the novel would seem less perfectly attuned. But Williams communicates, in harrowing detail, what it costs to play that way and sends you back to your seat, newly happy to be just an observer.