In the late nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, when anyone of musical culture mentioned Chopin, the name of Vladimir de Pachmann would immediately come to mind, the one name never far behind the other, seemingly forever linked. There had always been famous players of Chopin’s music, from Franz Liszt who had introduced many of his works to the public while the composer was alive, to Liszt’s rival, Sigismund Thalberg, who was known for playing a few works of Chopin. Later came Liszt’s most talented pupil Carl Tausig, who was the first to give all-Chopin recitals and at the same time, Anton Rubinstein, who was popularizing Chopin’s music in Russia. But they played only certain works, which they loved, or that suited their technique and temperament, or were in popular demand. De Pachmann was the first to play everything of Chopin, not only the large-scale works, but the smaller masterpieces and some works that had never been played, like the Allegro de Concert, which was practically unknown when he introduced it in London in the 1880s, causing a sensation. De Pachmann was the first to give Chopin cycles, such as those which he played at his American debut in New York in the 1889-1890 season: three concerts which included both large scale and smaller works. The cycle ended with a fourth, orchestral concert during which he played Chopin’s F Minor Concerto, and his wife (previously his pupil) Marguerite de Pachmann, made her American debut playing Liszt’s E-flat Concerto.
Though not the first to play all the Chopin etudes in concert—that honor went to Anna Essipova—Pachmann was the first to play all the etudes and preludes in one concert, in New York in 1900. He also was the first to play both concertos in one evening, in a concert in London in 1910. And he was also one of the first world-famous pianists to make an extended series of recordings—his 1907 Gramophone and Typewriter discs, with one exception all performances of Chopin.
Though primarily known as a Chopin exponent, de Pachmann did not limit himself to the Polish master. Although he played a few Bach pieces such as the Italian Concerto and other small works in arrangements by Saint-Saëns, and some Mozart including the popular A Major Sonata and the C Minor Fantasy, and the more popular Beethoven sonatas, including the “Waldstein Sonata” in New York in 1907, he concentrated on the early Romantics—Henselt, Weber, Mendelssohn, and Liszt. His performances of the first three were actually extensions of his Chopin style, the fourth entirely different.
De Pachmann had met Adolf von Henselt in St. Petersburg in the late 1880s and the composer presented him with an autographed photo. De Pachmann was an inspired performer of his etudes, particularly his most popular work, “Si oiseu j’etais,” of which the American critic James Huneker wrote a glowing account. Although he made no gramophone recordings of Henselt, he left an enchanting piano roll of a Henselt etude (an anomaly, as most of de Pachmann’s piano rolls are unrepresentative of his art.)
De Pachmann also had a close connection to Weber. His father met the composer in Prague before the elder Pachmann immigrated to Russia, and his son thought of himself as a Weber disciple. In his earlier concerts, de Pachmann was known for his commanding playing of Weber’s Chopinesque A-flat and other sonatas, but his reputation as a skilled Weber exponent rested mostly on his playing that composer’s two most popular works, the Invitation to the Dance and the Perpetuum Mobile (the rondo fourth movement from the First Sonata in C). According to the Debussy pupil George Copeland who heard Pachmann in Boston before World War One, the former work was given an alluringly romantic reading. The Perpetuum Mobile became one of the pianist’s most popular encores. He made an unissued recording of the work in his 1911-1912 Victor series. Certainly the jeu perlé passagework, the main feature of the music, suited his touch and style. He used to say of it, “Imagine a string of pearls. … Now I cut the string and the pearls scatter …”
He was successful with the different facets of Mendelssohn’s music, including the delicate fairy-like szorfandi of the Scherzo in E Minor, the Rondo Cappricioso and the “Spinning Song,” and the more romantic side in some of the other Songs Without Words, as well as in the composer’s grand and more forceful moments as in the Prelude in E Minor, Op. 35 and the Variations Serieuses.
Finally, there was his playing of Liszt, whose music held a special place in de Pachmann’s repertoire. Early in his career he gave an all-Liszt recital in New York playing the Sonata in B Minor among other works, and throughout his long career his repertoire included many of Liszt’s compositions. He played them with brilliance and power, which surprised some hearers, who thought of him more as a fantastic and delicate performer.
Two works of Liszt remained especially prominent in his repertoire throughout his long career—the Rigoletto Paraphrase, a beloved encore, and the Etude de Concert in F Minor (“La Leggierezza,”) a work of capricious, idealized jeu perlé that so suited his style and temperament it seemed created for de Pachmann.
When Liszt pupil Arthur Friedheim first heard de Pachmann, he felt Pachmann could have been the greatest pianist after Liszt, if he had chosen to play in that manner. But de Pachmann chose to do just the opposite. Though he had mastered this style, there were enough great Liszt players in his day, and he turned away to perfect a way of playing that was its complete antithesis—an approach that became unique for the pianists of the time. Leopold Godowsky in a 1917 letter wrote: “… His art defies all law, all conventions, all analytical dissertations. It is the most individual form of artistic expression I have ever encountered.”
Pachmann was the first pianist to use Chopin’s own style of playing to make a career. In de Pachmann’s day (and today, for that matter) pianists preferred to play the large scale masterpieces of Chopin over his smaller works, which they thought too intimate for the concert hall. De Pachmann was the first to challenge this attitude successfully—to use the so-called Chopin mystique and aesthetic, emphasizing refinement, tone color, delicacy, and charm over power and mere virtuosity. He dared to play in the concert hall the way Chopin played in a salon, discovering a way of producing a tone that sounded throughout the largest hall yet preserved an intimate character.
While keeping within the Chopin-like intimacy of tone, he united the elegance of his Viennese training with the more sonorous orchestral style of the Liszt school … the “Grand Manner” prevalent at the time. He could play very delicately, but his tone did not sound anemic, even though it was never massive or heavy. His touch always preserved limpidity, its hallmark being his much discussed “Pachmannissimo,” a very round and penetrating pianissimo that easily carried through the vast recesses of the Albert Hall. No other pianist could produce such a sound. George Copeland told me, “There was a gulf between him and all the other pianists of his time.”
With this magical tone went an extraordinarily captivating and sparkling rhythmical sense, which is apparent in his playing of Chopin’s waltzes and mazurkas, as well as Liszt’s Mazurka Brilliante. De Pachmann never adopted those crawling tempos that one hears so frequently in Chopin’s lyric works. His Chopin never dragged.
The composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji wrote an excellent summary of de Pachmann’s art: “The almost unlimited range of his gradations within a mezzo-forte and an unbelievable ‘quasi-niente;’ the amazing fluidity and limpidity of his ‘jeu perlé;’ his delicious dainty staccato; the marvelous cantilena; the exquisite phrasing, and the wonderful delicate fantasy of the whole … made his playing of certain works of Chopin an enchantment and a delight.”
Of course his performances reflected certain practices of his time introduced by Franz Liszt, who was the most important influence on pianists from the late-nineteenth century until World War One. Almost the entire world adopted Liszt’s all-embracing approach to music, including both technical mastery of the piano and musical aesthetics. It was he who shaped the tradition of the “older generation of pianists,” whether it was Bach as played by Busoni, Beethoven as played by d’Albert, or Chopin as played by de Pachmann.
Liszt encouraged his most talented pupils and disciples (and de Pachmann, like Busoni, considered himself a disciple of the master) to play the music as it appealed to them; to seek their own voices and to interpret the music as expressions of their own artistic personalities. At its best when in the hands of a great pianist, this approach could make the most familiar music seem like a revelation.
Because he played so many small works in an idiosyncratic way, de Pachmann’s playing was among the most recognizable of all the pianists of his time. Though he was a miniaturist, he put so much into these little pieces (some of them little in form only,) gave them so much life and character, that he was in reality, a great miniaturist. He did big things with little pieces.
Perhaps the aspect of his playing which today would seem most alien was his way of performing many of the most massive masterpieces, which he tended to sectionalize. These works then sounded like a series of miniatures, rather than a large structure. Done with skill and such perfection of finished, edgeless phrases, proceeding in graded pianissimi coming one after the other, the cumulative effect creating a tension different but perhaps as great as larger works played by his more powerful colleagues. He received ovations that rivaled theirs in intensity. There is nothing like this in the world of music today.
One must admit that de Pachmann’s Chopin was not complete. Although a supreme Chopin player in many ways, he was not an ideal one. The peculiar mastery de Pachmann possessed left no room for anything else. While he could transcend the limitations of his miniaturism in certain large scale works, which suited his temperament like the Fourth Scherzo and Third Ballade, his playing of works of an entirely different character—those which demand demonic virility and aggressiveness, such as the first two scherzos, the first two movements of the B-flat Minor Sonata, the F-sharp and A-flat Polonaises, and some of the more powerful etudes and preludes among others—was not convincing. When for example he played the “Revolutionary Etude,” he played the work as if it were a great lyric romance, completely vitiating the rage of this boiling music. While de Pachmann’s Chopin was never devoid of charm, it was always lacking heroics.
De Pachmann’s son Leonide, many years resident in Paris, described to me in detail how his father played the Berceuse and the Larghetto of the F Minor Concerto, the two works of Chopin which connoisseurs at the time considered the quintessence of his art. Within the framework of a tender lullaby, the Berceuse abounds in fioratura passages, which de Pachmann loved. He made “little pictures in a big one.” The great conception he had of the work would hold it together, while the little variations, beautiful in themselves, would be shaped into a delicate mosaic. And the coda! Under his fingers the music would slowly vanish to a wisp of tone, an essence, and the applause that inevitably followed seemed like an intrusion.
Of de Pachmann’s playing of the Larghetto from the F Minor Concerto, American critic Olin Downes wrote: “… if it is said that when he sang on the keys, the ineffable song of the Larghetto, angels wept over the bars of heaven, it is only a little more than the truth. Indeed the music had a haunting seraphic melancholy, a freedom from every thralldom of this world only to be evoked by the supreme artists and the pure in heart.”
De Pachmann was one of the most popular pianists of his time, but it would be naive to think that this was due exclusively to his magical pianism. He was the most eccentric world famous pianist who ever appeared on the concert platform, and the great playing and the eccentricities were somehow inextricably entwined. Today his artistry can be demonstrated only fitfully, for his best recordings (some of the earliest piano recordings ever made–1907) give only glimpses, albeit sometimes startling ones, of his great pianism … and his eccentricities were documented also.
During his heyday, if he made a mistake in concert, he would strike the guilty hand telling the audience, “Now he sounds like Paderewski.” He might cover his hands if he saw a celebrated pianist in the hall: “There’s Godowsky, I don’t want him to see my fingering.” He admonished the ladies in the third row to “Stop turning the pages of your music book … you are looking to see if I make mistakes. I am Pachmann, I make no mistakes. Besides, I play from a different edition.” He once ordered a latecomer to “shut up and sit down,” and severely reprimanded an audience that applauded at the wrong moments: “And I thought I was in musical Manchester!”
He maintained retainers, tuners, and movers who were kept busy adjusting the legs and pedals until the instrument was at the proper height, only to have him appear, put a few pieces of paper on the seat and announce, “You’d be surprised at the difference an inch makes.”
He had an expensive hobby. He collected unset gems, including diamonds, emeralds, rubies, topazes, and opals of innumerable shapes. He would tell audiences, “You know why other pianists cannot play with my colors? They do not know the great science of mineralogy. I absorb the colors of my gems with their sparkling tints and try to reproduce their nuances in my music … that is my secret!” When he bought a particularly beautiful specimen, his enthusiasm knew no bounds and he had to show it to his friends—the audience. In Carnegie Hall during his American tour of 1907, he brought a ruby out of his pocket. His eyes glowed as he held the shimmering jewel up for the audience to see. “Look how it glitters, how it reflects the light.” Then, “Listen to the way I play this Chopin waltz … you’ll forget about the ruby.” My teacher George Halprin who was there told me he then played the C-sharp Minor Waltz, ending with a pianissimo that was indescribable.
He had the manners of a mountebank with the message of a poet. He was the answer to a press agent’s dreams, and was as a matter of fact his own best advertiser. No one is certain how it all started. According to his long time secretary, Cesco Pallottelli, de Pachmann discovered very early in his career that if he entered into some direct contact with his audience, smiling and gesticulating, he could alleviate the acute nervousness that chronically afflicted him. Perhaps it was his own built-in protection from the rigors and strain of giving concerts.
These eccentricities were noticed from the very beginning of his career. One Bernard Shaw review has become notorious, describing de Pachmann’s “pantomimic performances with accompaniments of Chopin.” This pantomime sometimes included facial contortions and grimaces, which, in the words of Ferruccio Busoni, “would have sufficed to explain the music to a deaf and dumb institution.” Now and then these mannerisms were accompanied by grunts and snorts, which according to James Francis Cooke, editor of the Etude magazine, “duplicated in close hand the studies of anthropoid apes here and in the famous collection of Mme. Abreu in Havanna.”
James Huneker capitalized on this simian behavior when he heard de Pachmann for the first time at his American debut. In his review he christened de Pachmann the “Chopinzee,” and the nickname remained with him until the end.
The vaudeville performances grew in scope, as did the great musician’s art, each running parallel to the other. By the mid-1890s he was playing with an inspiration and clowning with an abandon, as he never had before. It was at this time that the celebrated “socks” incident occurred, which startled the music world and gave to de Pachmann’s concerts a notoriety they never lost.
At an all-Chopin recital at the Singakademie in Berlin, the pianist walked out holding a pair of socks. He announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I make the audience a speech. These are the socks that George Sand knitted for Chopin!” Next day he was visited by a celebrated critic, who asked to see the sacred socks—and then proceeded to kiss them. “But wasn’t that funny?” de Pachmann later confided to Olin Downes, “those weren’t Chopin’s socks, they’re my own.”
This bizarre behavior, spontaneous or willful, became an exotic framework for his exquisite pianism. Audiences expected from him a display of eccentricities and he obliged. His concerts always started late and when he did appear he would be loathe to play and would tease the audience into begging him to start. “Chopin?” he’d ask. Placing his hands on his neck, “I’ve had it up to here with Chopin!” Finally, when he was persuaded to play, he would stroke the keys indifferently through the first bars, sighing audibly. “This is not de Pachmann.” But as the music fired his imagination and he felt life flow into his fingers, he’d whisper, “Did you hear that? Only Pachmann can do that!” As enthusiastic as his admirers were, there was no one more enthusiastic than the artist himself: “Bravo de Pachmann!”
As the concert progressed, he became more animated. After a particularly ravishing performance he kissed his fingers: “That was Raphaelesque!” When he came to a lyric work, a nocturne or the Berceuse (pieces eagerly anticipated by many as the highlight of the concert), he began to weave a drug-like spell with that seductive tone, glancing over the audience like a sorcerer, holding it enthralled until the intensity stretched nerves to the breaking point. Then with a wave of his hand, he murmured, “If only Chopin could have heard that.” The spell broken and pent-up emotions released, laughter and applause swept the hall and he was recalled time and time again.
There were attempts made by both Cesco Pallottelli and by his English manager, Lionel Powell, to control de Pachmann’s eccentricities, but the few times he managed to play without any intruding platform mannerisms, he suffered so much that his performances became routine and lifeless. So they left him alone.
De Pachmann, in short, was incorrigible. With the decline in his art during World War One, there was an alarming increase in his mannerisms. He now talked continually, in a running commentary with the music. The critics had long ago given up complaining, and the eccentricities continued to the end. At those “Farewell for All Time” concerts in Paris, when he began the G Minor Ballade taking the opening octave passage in one hand, he told everyone, “Look, one hand! Not bad for a man of eighty!” And in his London concert at the Albert Hall, he did a stopwatch performance of the “Minute Waltz.” After concluding a favorite mazurka, he confided to the first rows, “I’d give all my art to have composed that piece.” De Pachmann never lost the childlike spontaneity and enthusiasm, which had always endeared him to audiences; by the time of his last appearances his curious personality seemed to arouse their love, even veneration.
Everything associated with de Pachmann … his playing, his platform behavior, even his early life and career … was unlike any other world-famous pianist. He was born in Odessa, Russia in 1848, the youngest of thirteen children; his mother bore him when she was forty-five. His father, Vincent Pachmann, a Professor of Roman Law at a secondary school and an amateur cellist, began teaching his youngest son to play the violin when he was six. So thorough was the instruction that in later years, de Pachmann still retained competency on the instrument. When he was twelve, he began to study the piano, showing such talent that at nineteen he was sent to the Vienna Conservatory.
His teacher there, Joseph Dachs, was a pupil of Carl Czerny (who had been a pupil of Beethoven). He gave young de Pachmann a thorough mastery of his own school, relying on finger technique to solve all pianistic problems. All arm movement was restricted. It was a school of playing which had perfectly suited performance on the wooden frame pianos of his own student days, but was already obsolete on the heavier iron-framed instruments then in use. Student de Pachmann gained complete mastery of this old-fashioned method and at the end of his studies, he was awarded a medal at a concert at the school. He played Liszt’s E-flat Concerto, with the composer present.
After returning to Russia, he gave some concerts in Odessa and nearby provincial cities. Then he heard Carl Tausig on his final Russian tour of 1870, and was so overwhelmed by Tausig’s tremendous pianism and artistry that he interrupted his own budding career to reevaluate his playing. And he then retired—at age twenty-two.
He vowed to work as much as was necessary. His goal—to incorporate the new Lisztian orchestral style that Tausig exemplified, with its mixture of poetry, drama, and power and a free use of the body, but to retain the finesse of his Viennese training. All this was made more difficult because of an obsession unique with him: to search for the most beautiful of piano tones. He spent as much time working on touch and tone as on technique.
In 1878 his father died and de Pachmann had to end his studies. He went to Leipzig and appeared in concerts arranged by Karl Reinecke, but was still dissatisfied and a year later he went to Florence and seems to have had at least one meeting with Madame Rubio, one of Chopin’s assistants and last pupils. (Apparently she claimed to have been one of his teachers, but no evidence to support the claim seems to exist.) Encouraged, he returned to Vienna with the intention of making a debut … he was now thirty-two. But many years of solitary study had become such a habit that he found himself incapable of playing before an audience. His recital, which had been announced in the papers and for which tickets had been sold, had to be cancelled twice. It was only on the third attempt that his exasperated manager, who had rented the hall, managed to push his frightened artist onto the stage, shouting “Swim or die!” De Pachmann found himself in front of a skeptical and impatient audience. It was too late to turn back and he forced himself to play.
At the end of the concert de Pachmann received an ovation, and this late-starting career now flowed into one success after another. He subsequently played a concert in Budapest at which Liszt was again present. The great maestro was so impressed he invited him to play for Wagner, and later sent him to Paris with a warm letter of introduction to Saint-Saëns, who was also enthusiastic.
De Pachmann’s concerts in the French capital were vividly reported by the Paris correspondent for the London Times and enormous interest was aroused in England. He was invited to appear with the London Philharmonic in a performance of Chopin’s F Minor Concerto, his first triumph in England. Other successes followed in the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany, and eventually, seven tours of America, the last in 1923-1925 when he made two million dollars. Finally at eighty, he ended his career with a European “Farewell for All Time” tour, playing in cities he hadn’t visited in nearly fifty years.
Even the most casual listener, hearing de Pachmann’s recordings for the first time, will notice the difference between his Chopin interpretations and modern performances. Certainly this is because of de Pachmann’s extreme use of performance practices of the nineteenth century. One can hardly expect a performer born in 1848 to have played like a modern pianist; still, there are certain features in his playing that modern audiences would likely find as attractive as did audiences in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Other traits would be considered less desirable.
First there was his uniquely beautiful piano tone, well caught on his two last electrical recordings, with startling suggestions of it throughout his earlier recordings. His amazing facility in jeu perlé passagework, one of the hallmarks of his art, is also well illustrated, as is his mastery of bel canto, his finesse with trills, thirds, and sixths not unlike a great coloratura. Then there was his buoyant rhythmical sense in his playing of mazurkas and waltzes. And also his flowing rhythm in lyric works never drags. Finally, his command of the Lisztian bravura, which so surprised his hearers, is well demonstrated in his few Liszt recordings.
All other aspects of his playing on the records are more controversial. First (depending on one’s viewpoint) is his use (or overuse) of rubato. This feature of de Pachmann’s Chopin was not unlike other pianists of the older generation, and is the most distinguishing feature of their playing as compared with modern performers. Some feel de Pachmann’s (or other pianists of his day) use of rubato is a Victorian exaggeration. In my opinion, Chopin’s lyric works never seem more evocative than when played by the older generation, who seem more imbued with the spirit of the time. One has only to hear Ignaz Friedman in Chopin’s E-flat Nocturne Op. 55, or de Pachmann in the E Minor Nocturne, to hear this style of playing at its best.
Where there is no disagreement is in de Pachmann’s use of breaking the hands (hands not together). This old-fashioned affectation is more in evidence in pianists of Pachmann’s generation than those born in the 1870s and ’80s, including many of the great pianists of the “golden age”—e.g., Hofmann, Friedman, Rachmaninoff, Godowsky, Lhevinne—who used it rarely. In de Pachmann’s case, his use of it was very subtle as if it were two separate voices and he rarely broke the continuity of the music. Only when the musical line is continually broken as in his later recording of the popular E-flat Nocturne, does this device become irritating.
What will be condemned today is the exuberant insertion of his own additions into the original text, as is found occasionally on some of his recordings. The most glaring example is his insertion of a cadenza after the lyrical section of the “Minute Waltz” on his earliest recording. Later examples are a chain of double thirds in the B major interlude in the B Minor Mazurka; adding a quasi-glissando in the middle of the “Black Key Etude” on his acoustic Victor disc and in the posthumously released electrical recording of the same work, ending not parallel but with octaves in contrary motion, a la Godowsky—this done as a jeu d’esprit; and finally, “beautifying” the D-flat Nocturne with fiorature-like decorative passages on his electrical recording.
On the face of it, with the exception of the cadenza in the D-flat Waltz, these transgressions are little “asides,” that do not affect the structure or melodic content of the music. Critics in de Pachmann’s time were only slightly less lenient about textual liberties than they are today, but these little “asides” were in fact tolerated. They were less charitable when melodies and harmonies were changed. De Pachmann felt their wrath when he once added some new harmonies to the already celestial ones Chopin wrote in the “Aeolian Harp Etude,” or appended “baby blue” chords to the already majestic ones Chopin had written in the Fantasy.
Because de Pachmann was a “pianissimist,” he liked to soften Chopin’s dynamic markings. Sometimes this worked, as in his softening of the strident ending of the Second Impromptu. But he ruins the ending of the D Minor Prelude by softening the convulsive run with its fantastic low Ds, for a routine one, ending with a banal D minor chord.
When de Pachmann did play Chopin’s text, he was not always meticulous with the note values that the composer actually wrote. The feeling was that the spirit of the music was more important than the exact letter. This free style of playing (and singing) permeated the romantic tradition of the time. Editions that were then used were so heavily edited that it was hard to differentiate between the composer’s markings and the editor’s. According to my own teacher George Halprin, his teacher, the noted Chopin exponent Rafael Joseffy, would tell his pupils, “You have to put in what Chopin left out.” Given the inconsistencies to be found in de Pachmann’s recordings, one may question this cavalier approach, even its artistic merit. This is debatable. Though most of his recordings come from his declining years, their historical importance is incontestable. They preserve a way of playing that has totally vanished from the concert hall.
It is sad to think that the performer’s art is as ephemeral as fame. Without mechanical means it is preserved only in memory. With de Pachmann this is particularly poignant since the many attempts to record him were none too successful, although (including unissued discs) he made over seventy recordings, the first in 1907 when he was fifty-nine, the last in 1927 when he was seventy-nine. As a whole they do not reflect his great reputation or the high esteem he held with musicians during his lifetime. Everyone I spoke to who had heard de Pachmann in his prime before World War One agreed that his recordings did not capture his great playing. Even though there are some stunning performances among his recorded output, to these people the recordings were mostly mere shadows of what they had heard in the concert hall.
The recording process was then in its infancy and the early acoustical process could hardly capture the myriad nuances of his touch, and the beauty of his tone (particularly in soft passages) was often obliterated. In fact, de Pachmann’s recordings better capture the decline of his playing than illustrate its greatness. His art would have benefited from the improved electrical process, but when it came, he was too old.
Another factor was, unlike most of his concert appearances, he was not always in the vein when he made recordings. Like his friends Godowksy and Busoni, and in more modern times like Guiomar Novaes, he was ill at ease in the recording studio and needed an audience to inspire him.
But perhaps the main reason for disappointment with de Pachmann’s recordings is that with the exception of his earliest discs, his output stems from the last years of his career, and his playing had started to lose its freshness. Mannerisms began to replace spontaneity and brought the seeds of a nascent decline.
Despite this catalogue of complaints, there are some unforgettable performances among his recordings and, in my opinion, a few of his discs are among the best recordings ever made of that particular composition. De Pachmann was at the height of his powers in 1907 when he made his first series of six recordings for the Gramophone and Typewriter (G & T) Company. These are some of the earliest recordings ever made by a world famous pianist. While undeniably primitive with their rumbling bass and vanishing treble, de Pachmann’s G & T discs (if played at the proper speed), when compared to early French piano recordings, with their wavering pitches and xylophone sonics, manage to preserve a semblance of piano tone. These G & T discs, and with one exception the subsequent “pre-dog” 1909 HMV records, as well as some of the Victor recordings of 1911-1912, are among his best discs, and suggest something of his greatness.
The G & T de Pachmann recordings are his most startling. His fingers danced with a delicate energy in his exquisite performance of a beloved work, Chopin’s F Minor Prelude, which de Pachmann plays as Chopin is reputed to have played it, in long, non-legato phrases in glistening jeu perlé, where each note seems to have a life of its own. This idealization of single notes, making each note iridescent and pearl-like, was characteristic of his playing and is particularly apparent in the G & T series. His performance of the “Butterfly Etude” is, for me, the ideal one, and in his “Honor Roll of Recorded Chopin,” Jan Holcman, that indefatigable auteur and encyclopedist, ranked it the greatest recording of the piece. George Halprin thought it closely resembled the performance he heard de Pachmann give in New York in 1907. Played quickly with a dainty, even touch, stressing very slightly the right hand octave melody so that the chord and the octaves almost have the same timbre. He ends the work with a magical inspiration: while hastening the double sixths in the treble, he accelerates the octave run down the bass to a pianissimo, as if the butterfly has fluttered away. Mr. Halprin said that when de Pachmann finished playing this, his right hand flew and fluttered into the air, imitating a butterfly flying away.
His recording of the D-flat Waltz is the first example of the coloratura, bel canto style, for which he was famous. His conception of the waltz is of a coloratura soprano like Marcella Sembrich, singing roulades interspersed with lyrical asides. Carried away by inspiration, he has his imaginary coloratura sing a cadenza at the end of the middle section before the reprise of the first part, and ends the work with great exuberance. It was the fashion at that time for virtuosi to inundate this waltz with pianistic elaborations: both Moriz Rosenthal and Rafael Joseffy added thirds, Leopold Godowsky thirds and contrapuntal melodies, and Alexander Michalowski, a regular deluge of pianistic bric-a-brac. Against this, Pachmann’s little cadenza seems harmless enough. But because there is no other alteration of the original text, it seems even more disturbing.
The recordings of the C-sharp Minor Waltz and the Mazurka in A-flat, both popular favorites, are prime examples of both his poetic ability and wonderful rhythmic sense. The waltz is played with great spirit and life—preserving Chopin’s tempo giusto marking, but also in the D-flat section, the beauty of his cantabile playing (startlingly caught by the G & T pressings) and his famous diminuendo pianissimo ending. The mazurka recording illustrates these aspects as well, the first part played as if an idealized refinement or fantasy of the dance, while the middle part is notable for the brio and bounce of his rhythm. As in the “Butterfly Etude,” he ends the work with an inspiration: he retards the melody as it ends and makes it disappear, as if the dancers had vanished over the horizon—a perfect rendition of Chopin’s morendo marking.
Many consider de Pachmann’s playing Chopin’s nocturnes among his greatest achievements. George Halprin frequently mentioned the hypnotic spell he created with his tone. You can hear suggestions of this on his G & T recording of the Nocturne in G Major. The double-sixths have a suave, smooth delicacy and the lush sound he suggests on the recording in the “boat song” melody as he floats the song over the water is a rare glimpse of his lyrical playing at its best. One can only imagine what this sensuous evocation must have sounded like in the hall!
De Pachmann’s abridged recording of Chopin’s Barcarolle is the most primitively recorded of this 1907 group. Still the beauty of his touch, the coloratura mastery of double-note passages, the tonal opulence in the piano’s middle register and the limpidity and chiaroscuro atmosphere that permeates the music comes through, despite the sonic impediments. The recording seems to illustrate the “bath of sound” that his son Leonide described to me that enveloped his father’s playing. The ease and technical mastery of his playing is apparent throughout.
In listening to this performance, however, one has the feeling that the artist was racing with time to fit the recording on one side of a record, for the performance surely lacks expansiveness. Even in this abridged version (the opening is omitted as is the A major section) de Pachmann was forced to play certain sections faster than he would have in concert—the sfogato section for example. This somewhat dampens one’s pleasure in the performance, which is also compromised by the poor sonics. The Barcarolle was aurally too complex a work to record successfully in 1907.
De Pachmann’s next series of recordings was made two years later for the same company, and the recordings appeared on “pre-dog” His Master’s Voice discs, before the label adopted Nipper as its trademark. With one exception, the high level he attained with his 1907 recordings is maintained, and the sound is fuller and richer.
Mendelssohn’s chestnut Rondo Capriccioso is one of the best performances. It demonstrates de Pachmann’s ability in shaping phrases with sensitivity within the framework of a fairy-like scherzo. Once more his lively rhythmic sparkle is in evidence, as is the jeu perlé elegance and finesse of the arpeggi and passagework. Particularly admirable is his ability to play arpeggi in pianissimo in the repeat, at the required presto tempo. The energy and brio in his playing of the concluding octave bravura passage is also notable.
This series includes de Pachmann’s first recording of Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase. It was one of the pianist’s most beloved encores and he made three recordings of it. This is the most elegant of them, recorded at the age of sixty-one when his notable articulation in passagework was still preserved. He would often tell his audience as he played the famous melody in the left hand with his sustained tone, that it was Caruso, and when he arrived at the delicate staccato octave repetitions in the right hand treble, “Here is Patti.” His performance suggests an operatic idealization, not merely a showpiece for virtuosity, but an imaginative Lisztian operatic recreation: the sparkle of the chandeliers, the plush velvet curtains and seats, the bejeweled ladies with their fans and lorgnettes, amid the lush operatic melodies. Pachmann suggests all this with his amazing touch. Jan Holcman thought this recording of the piece the best made on 78 discs.
La Fileuse of Raff in Henselt’s arrangement was a famous sentimental “spinning song” popular in the late-nineteenth century with amateurs and professionals, because it well illustrated the plushness and shimmering resonance of late-nineteenth century pianos. It found an inspired spokesman in de Pachmann, whose silvery performance has never been equaled. The evenness of his touch, the marvelous jeu perlé scale passages and the ethereal beauty of his tone high in the treble, as well as the opulence of the ending arpeggi, made this work the Pachmann encore and he recorded it four times. This 1909 disc, because of the better sound than the clattery 1907 disc, may be the preferred recording, though the final Columbia recording with its softer, muted sound seems to suit the music even better.
Finally there is the only unsuccessful recording from this series: Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude.” His performance of this famous, heroic, and passionate outburst is a total misconception. Conceived as a sort of tragic romance, his left-hand plays rolling waves of sound as he enunciates the right hand, not as angry declamations, but as nostalgic entreaties. Even the arpeggiated figuration at the second return of the theme, after the middle part, is affected. The left hand figurations, which should be a maelstrom of simmering energy merely act as an accompaniment for the too lyrically phrased right hand melody. The final unison descent, which should suggest a climax of pent-up rage, here sounds decorative and weightless: a tempest in a teapot.
The issued recordings:
Two more years passed before Pachmann recorded again. He returned to America in 1911 for what was advertised as his “Farewell Tour.” Everyone felt he would retire when it was over, for he was now sixty-three. His tone had become richer and fuller, undiminished … but one cannot help but notice on this series some loss in articulation and purity of style. Mannerisms began to appear, not serious enough to destroy the beauty of his playing, but the harbinger of a decline.
This sixth American tour was his most successful so far as admirers, hearing of his imminent retirement, flocked to his concerts. Capitalizing on this, the Victor Talking Machine Company offered him a contract for his most extensive series of recordings. He recorded forty works from his repertoire, of which nineteen were eventually issued. Proof copies of at least some of the remaining eighteen unissued records were given to de Pachmann when he left America in June, 1912. By the time I had access to them through the pianist’s private secretary Cesco Pallottelli in the late 1950s, only nine remained.
Unfortunately Victor provided de Pachmann with sonics inferior to those given other Victor pianists who recorded at the same period, such as Paderewski and Olga Samaroff. The delicacy of his touch is not as apparent as on his earlier recordings because of too-close, brittle sound, while the pianist’s use of a somewhat shallow Baldwin piano exaggerates the lack of depth. There is also in some places a problem with balance, with improper horn placement resulting in the left hand sounding almost as loud as the right. In Chopin’s “Funeral March” there is a sudden drop in pitch, as if the engineer was slipshod, and less damagingly, some of the records were mislabeled. Still, de Pachmann rose above the sonic impediments and carelessness to incise some immortal performances.
The Impromptu in A-flat is taken at a very fast tempo, perhaps too fast for the score’s “quasi presto” direction. He manages to give it a breathless sparkle, with a crisp touch in the right hand and a whirling zeffiroso sound to the left-hand triplets. The beauty of the performance is in the rhapsodic lyricism of the middle section, with its subtle ritard and beautiful cadenza “asides” amid the flowering of the melody, all done with a wonderful spontaneity, ending with a lovely bel canto-like trill before the return of the first part. This delightful performance concludes with a typical Pachmann touch: he ends the work slyly, as Chopin wrote, with no ritard.
The issued recording of the Chopin Ballade in A-flat contains only half of the work, from bar 116 on. A recording of the first part, recorded at a different time, remained unissued. Probably there were attempts to record the complete work on one disc side … at least they didn’t issue an abridged version as with the 1907 recording of the Barcarolle. On the issued recording he takes the passagework in a more lyrical manner than it is usually played, with exquisite rubato colorations. He lets the music unfold gradually, building to a majestic climax. The Victor process rumbles badly during the development section but not enough to ruin the performance, which is rich and euphonious, rather than heroic.
Mendelssohn’s Venetian Gondola Song is given a poetic interpretation, with sensuous trills and double thirds, played with a haunting tone suggestive of watery opulence, much like his recording of Chopin’s Barcarolle. His way of making the trills seem to come from nowhere and then vanish is extraordinary, imbuing the work with a magical spell that is almost Chopinesque.
His performance of the once wildly popular Spinning Song, the other Mendelssohn work on the same twelve-inch disc, is less satisfying. The extremely fast tempo forces him to rush unevenly through many of the phrases, losing the rhythmic steadiness the music should have to suggest a spinning wheel. Only the ending with its accelerando diminuendo to a pianissimo ending has the Pachmann touch.
Here Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase is a much more passionate and virtuosic performance than the 1909 recording. Though there is some loss of articulation and clarity, his jeu perlé is as beautiful as ever. The touch seems fuller and richer, and he tosses off the double thirds with a theatrical flair and spontaneity that a modern player could envy, yet the music never sounds harsh or vulgar. As in the earlier performance, he preserves the feeling of vocal opulence with his melodic playing, amid Lisztian rhetorical grandeur. It is his ability to project these two contrasting elements in the music that makes the performance so special.
The F Major Nocturne is played simply, the left hand figurations with an admirable softness and steadiness, creating a limpid serenity, even though the right hand is not always together with the left. In his subtle use of rhythmic waywardness, he never violates the basic pulse or loses continuity. It grows out of the music, instead of being forced into it. He conceived the stormy middle section as a disturbing interlude, even rushing the double sixths, stressing the more lyrical sequences as it gradually returns to the first theme. The music now becomes more intense and evocative with a marvelous stillness. Unfortunately the spell is ruined at the end because the record runs out, robbing Pachmann of the time to let the music die away. (Pachmann, famous for his endings, would suspend the sound, breathlessly holding it and the audience, until it vanished. My teacher remembered it). In the F Major Nocturne, betrayed by the acoustical process, he simply plays a quick F major arpeggio as the record ends.
Leonide de Pachmann told me that his father played the Chopin “Funeral March” at a quicker tempo than it was usually taken, which is apparent in the Victor recording. As played on the recording, the work doesn’t sound very heroic. The dotted rhythm is used as an effect of coloration, occasionally being rushed in a certain phrase (repeated twice) as he shapes the march to its destination: the trio, which he plays with great sensitivity. He holds back the melody during the repetition as if he were suspending time with the consolation before returning to the sorrowful march.
The surprising (and rarest) issued recording in this series is de Pachmann’s performance of Leopold Godowsky’s version for the left hand alone of the “Revolutionary Etude.” Given his poor 1909 recording of the original, one would have thought he might have avoided works of this character, and in fact the first few phrases of the Godowsky transcription are played in a bumbling, amateurish manner, as if he hadn’t made up his mind to record it at all. But do not discount this record, for after a while he recovers, and plays the remaining music with a thrilling abandon and virtuosity unusual for him. This is much better than in his 1909 recording of the original text and his only truly successful recording of a type of music that was not conducive to his temperament or style. He adored Godowsky both as a performer (he thought Godowsky was the second greatest pianist alive!) and as a composer.
Other issued recordings from this series contain certain sections, which stand out. The beautiful Chopin Etude in E Minor is spoiled by the harsh sound accorded the appoggiaturas by the Victor process, and by the rather routine playing of the scherzando sections, and the mild, unconvincing ending. But the lyrical E major section receives a suave and graceful performance, with a notable diminuendo before the return of the scherzando theme.
The twenty-fourth Chopin Prelude in D Minor is ruined by the inappropriate ending, but up to then the performance is intense and concentrated, with a deft, smooth delivery of the left hand figurations, which serve to energize the music.
The unissued recordings:
Some of Pachmann’s best playing on the 1911-1912 Victor series occurs on the unissued recordings, unique test pressings that were preserved by Cesco Pallottelli. Pallottelli allowed me to tape these discs, which were played back on an acoustic gramophone and I recorded them using a microphone and portable tape recorder. Since then the discs have disappeared and may be gone forever. We are left with my less-than-professional sounding tapes, with extraneous noises (Pallottelli coughing, footsteps, etc.). Still the masterly playing comes through, though some indulgence is needed. Let us hope the test recordings did survive and will surface someday.
Two Chopin etudes, in C major and F minor, are among his best recordings. The first etude, the famous arpeggio study that opens the first book of etudes like a giant door to a new world, is played as the epitome of jeu perlé. He idealizes the notes, gives them an iridescent sheen, sometimes putting air between them, much like a jeweler showing the different pearls on a necklace strand. There is none of the bravura, heroic quality that usually associated with this etude. It is more poetic, though not without an intensity of its own. The performance is also notable for some daring pedal effects, employed to bring out some hidden melodies embedded in the arpeggiated figurations. The F Minor Etude is played very evenly with some deft rubato touches in the final repetition of the theme. His legato and legatissimo are exemplary, combining a purling quality of tone with a scintillation uniquely his own.
The E Major Etude from Op. 10 is played in an unsentimental manner, not too slowly, with an intensity of feeling and an undercurrent of passion, which blazes in the middle section, with an amazing burst of bravura in the cadenza-like passage before the return of the lyrical first part. Leonide de Pachmann remembered this recording and when discussing it with me, told me his father had the smallest hands of any famous pianist (de Pachmann was small, standing barely five feet two inches). He said his father would spend hours inventing special fingerings to solve technical problems caused by his small hands. No one would guess hearing the speed, accuracy, and ease with which he plays these famous passages.
The F Minor Nocturne from Opus 55 is played in a trance-like manner, the oft-repeated melody given very expressively, with the color constantly varied with each repetition. A certain mannered quality in the phrasing tends to spoil the performance’s freshness, and gives the whole an air of over-ripeness. De Pachmann redeems himself at the end with a marvelous example of pianistic control, as he mounts the arpeggi and lets them vanish in air. No other pianist had so mastered Chopin’s diminuendo morendo markings as de Pachmann, letting the music evaporate in a thread of tone.
The two mazurkas, Op. 33, No. 3 and Op. 67, No. 4 (this latter one might well be called “The Pachmann Mazurka,” for he recorded it four times, three of which have survived) are both played with great charm. There is a daintiness and a fantasy, as if looking out from the chateau, one saw some peasants dancing in the field, closer to the nostalgic mazurka style of Moriz Rosenthal, than the more lustily conceived and heavily accented mazurka performances of Ignaz Friedman. When Rosenthal visited de Pachmann in his retirement at his villa in Rome and played some mazurkas for him, de Pachmann called him “my pupil.” And of de Pachmann, my teacher George Haprin said, “We all learned from him.”
As for the group of preludes he recorded: the little C-sharp Minor Prelude is played like a nickel rolled down the keys, giving it enough interest to avoid triviality … a little epigram, no more, no less. The performance of the famous C Minor “Funeral March,” one of Chopin’s miniature masterpieces, is notable for his control of graded chords, which soften with each repetition of the fatal melody until the final chord, which is louder, suggesting the closing of a tomb.
The unissued performance of the first part of the A-flat Ballade is somewhat faster than usual. He emphasizes the dance-like rhythms of the music, retaining a beautiful flow and smoothness. George Halprin told me he remembered Pachmann playing the broken octaves that introduce the second theme with the most caressing sound, in a pianissimo that you had to strain to hear. The whole performance had a magical seductive quality, which was not captured on either of the recordings. But then, that is the main problem with Pachmann’s recordings—as a whole, they do not capture the fantasy and freedom that all his admirers remembered from his concert performances.
Finally there is an oddity, a brilliant, delightful performance of Liszt’s rarely heard Mazurka Brillante, the only recording made of the work until the 1960s. He plays it as if it were a masterpiece, with a rhythmic sparkle and animation. He really believed in this music, and makes the listener believe in it too, despite the fact that this is one of the master’s lesser works.
Of the unissued Victor recordings, which were not in Pallottelli’s possession when I visited and are apparently lost, the most valuable was the great pianist’s recording of Chopin’s Berceuse. This was de Pachmann’s only recording of the Berceuse … his performances of which were so treasured by the world. Cesco Pallottelli told me that Pachmann rejected it because of excessive surface noise. One must conclude that his extraordinary pianissimi in his performances of the work were beyond the ability of the Victor acoustical process of the time.
Pachmann retired in 1912 and it was with great difficulty that Cesco Pallottelli was able to locate him and persuaded him to return to his career. Giving concerts was in his blood, however, and after a year’s absence on the eve of World War One, de Pachmann was back on the concert stage.
This became one of the most active periods of his career. His popularity was now at its peak. He not only toured the British Isles yet again, but also gave four orchestral concerts, and was awarded the Beethoven Medal after a performance of Chopin’s E Minor Concerto with the London Philharmonic. Later he played Chopin’s F Minor Concerto with Sir Thomas Beecham and subsequently, the Mendelssohn G Minor Concerto and the Weber Konzertstück. Despite his busy schedule, he found time to make recordings. This was his Columbia series, made in 1915 when he was sixty-six, under entirely different circumstances from his other recordings.
Knowing the Maestro’s aversion to the recording studio environment, the management of the Columbia Graphophone Company sent the recording apparatus to his home, around the corner from Queen’s Hall, where the great pianist could record “anything he wanted,” (so they told him) at his leisure. This resulted in some strange choices such as a Brahms Capriccio, the Scherzo from the Chopin Third Sonata, and two different performances of the Chopin Etude in F Major, Op. 25. Compared to his earlier recordings, the Columbia acoustics are softer, more muted, and somewhat fuzzy. The sound is not as focused or close up. De Pachmann’s touch was better served with this process, but it was more prone to noisy surfaces, which frequently obliterate his softer playing.
One immediately notices a precipitous decline in Pachmann’s playing after only a few moments of listening. There seems to be no energy. His articulation, somewhat faded in the 1911-1912 Victor recordings, is now almost nonexistent. The playing is bereft of sparkle or life, with a corresponding loss of technical prowess.
Musically, the mannerisms noticeable on some of the Victor discs are now more prevalent. There is a lack of freshness in his interpretations, which is hard to explain since only three years had passed since his previous recordings. As recently as 1913, his son Leonide had heard his father at a party in Paris play the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier Sonata” and Chopin’s F Minor Ballade, and he told me, “he never played better.”
It probably would have been best for Pachmann’s hard-earned reputation if he had stayed retired. There are some beautiful performances in the Columbia series, but the choice items are much scarcer than before. One of the best is the cadenza from Liszt’s fire-eating Polonaise in E Major, once a very popular work. There is a magnificent recording of this by Liszt’s pupil Arthur de Greef, which combines a thrilling bravura with a grandeur that probably is a reflection of the great composer’s own playing. There is none of this in Pachmann’s rendition of the work. Instead we have a performance of breathless delicacy. As in some of his other recordings, the notes are spun out in graceful and fluid phrases. The rhythm is not pointed or energetic enough, and the octave scramble at the end doesn’t help. Still, the cadenza, which takes up most of the recording, is unique.
Chopin’s C Major Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 3, is entrancing, one of Pachmann’s great recorded performances. Once again, Jan Holcman singled out the recording as the best ever. The mazurka rhythm is played with a certain fantasy, not rigidly, against a suavely phrased melody that seems to sway. The mazurka’s “stamp,” in the middle section, is livelier, but never heavy, and the unique touch he uses when the melody returns, with an arpeggiated chord, is like an awakening.
The famous B Minor Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 4, is given a fantastic (some might say, too fantastic) performance. Again he idealizes the rhythm and seems to find a whimsical fantasy behind it. He doesn’t keep a steady beat but rushes it, reflecting the different moods of the music. Chopin’s pupil Wilhelm von Lenz reported that when the composer played it, it sounded “like a ballade.” It is usually played either very thoughtfully, even sadly (Rosenthal) or more outgoing, with a lusty, captivating rhythm (Friedman). De Pachmann’s performance is somewhere in between, reflecting Friedman’s stressing of the dance rhythm (but with a much lighter touch), and Rosenthal’s expressive playing of the lyrical B major section. But in his exuberance, Pachmann throws in a chain of double notes in the repeat section following the B major melody. It is done so deftly one might have thought Chopin wrote it. Just a minor thing, yet it can’t help but irritate those who find Pachmann’s playing already too indulgent.
Personally, I find the Columbia of Raff’s La Fileuse the most attractive of the four recordings that de Pachmann made. While the earlier versions are more technically adroit, the music suits the softer, muted sound of the Columbia process and the spinning motive is more veiled, allowing the sentimental melody to float over it. De Pachmann plays the final arpeggi in limpid, silvery cascades of sound, well caught by the Columbia process.
These are the best of his Columbia discs; all the others suffer from musical or technical deficiencies.
De Pachmann frequently played the Etude in F, Op. 25, No. 3, but neither of the recordings he made is satisfactory. The first, issued in America separately, has some poised if mannered phrasing, and a lovely, evaporating pianissimo trill at the end, but is played much too slowly to capture the capricious badinage-like feeling required. The second is played faster and livelier, but suffers from rhythmical inaccuracies—as do the other Columbias and the later HMV electricals: an inability to differentiate the three basic rhythms that give the music its wayward charm.
Increased mannerisms are most apparent in the Columbia recording of the Impromptu in A-flat. While not played as fast as the earlier Victor, it has no spontaneity or charm—everything is exaggerated. Even the middle section is stale compared to the earlier version, and the ending sounds affected. The lack of life is particularly apparent in the Scherzo movement from Chopin’s B Minor Sonata. The piece’s thoughtful, enigmatic trio and the sparkling delicacy of the Scherzo particularly suited Pachmann in his prime, according to George Halprin who heard him play it in 1911, but now in his decline everything is too muted and slow, the middle section too mannered and rhythmically uneven. The Columbia recording of Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase is de Pachmann’s third, and least satisfactory, lacking the elegant orchestration of the 1909 disc and the passion and tonal splendor of his 1911 recording.
The curious Brahms recording is a total loss, de Pachmann’s most boring disc. With some waltzes and a rhapsody, this capriccio was one of the few works of the composer he played. One wonders why, for there is nothing in the recorded performance to suggest he had any affinity for Brahms’s music.
The Columbia disc that shows most obviously his great technical decline is his recording of Chopin’s Prelude in B-flat Minor: a disaster, with the left hand (or what one hears of it through the noisy surface) seeming almost nonexistent in a hectic, embarrassing performance.
Finally, there are two Columbia recordings of Chopin nocturnes. The D-flat Nocturne was considered one of de Pachmann’s triumphs when in his prime, on a par with his performances of the Berceuse. Little of this reclaim is justified by this recording, which is played so slowly (his slowest recorded performance), he would have required a second side had he recorded the complete work. It begins at the second repetition of the melody, vitiating any possibility for the pianist to build a spell and compromising the intensity of the music. The disc is also the noisiest of the Columbias, the surface noise frequently obscuring the sensitive but mannered performance.
De Pachmann plays the ubiquitous E-flat Nocturne as if it was the most beautiful music ever written. He colors the familiar melody with an almost unbearable beauty of tone, which becomes more intense with each repetition, ending with a breathless cadenza, letting the music die away as if he were loathe to end it. The performance is spoiled (“ruined,” his son Leonide thought) by the constant “breaking of the hands.” Nowhere else is this old-fashioned mannerism as obvious or as irritating as it is here. As he aged, Pachmann’s art took on an affected sentimentality; critics noted this in their reviews of his performance of the Chopin E Minor Concerto a year later in 1916. These regrettable qualities were absent from his playing in his prime, but are all too evident on his Columbia recordings.
Like many of his colleagues, de Pachmann preferred recording piano rolls to discs. The effort involved was less stressful, there was no time limit, and one could play almost anything one liked, including large-scale works. Best of all, one had real piano sound. While there are a few successful piano-roll recordings by famous performers, de Pachmann’s are not among them. There is nothing in most of these roll recordings to suggest that it was de Pachmann who was playing. With all their faults, his disc recordings capture at least at times some of the beauty of his playing, and are infinitely preferable to the piano rolls. However, two of his more successful rolls are included in this compilation, Henselt-Pachmann La Gondola (played back on the pianist’s own Baldwin Welte piano in 1961), and Pachmann’s improvisation on The Maiden’s Prayer (played on a Feurich Welte piano, tape courtesy of Ken Caswell of The Pierian Recording Society). Pachmann was not interested in the banal Badarzewska composition, but was sometimes required to play it, as when it was requested as an encore, after a program of classics he had played, at a command performance for Queen Victoria at Osborne House. Ten thousand copies of the sheet music were still selling each year in Melbourne as late as 1924.
The last recordings were made when de Pachmann was in his late seventies, including the final Victor acoustics from his last American tour of 1923-1925, and electrical recordings made in England for HMV between 1925 and 1927. The decline in his playing apparent in the 1915 Columbia recordings has now become almost a disintegration. His final American tour lasted three years. He gave as many as four or five concerts a week and the tour was an enormous financial success, but at an incalculable cost. When it ended, de Pachmann was played out. As his son Leonide told me, “he melted in America.”
The last American acoustic recordings are preferable to the English Gramophone electricals because they were made before the strain of the grueling final American tour, which exhausted the pianist completely. There is some of his old magic in the Second Impromptu. The late acoustic sound captures his touch better than the earlier discs, and the glistening jeu perlé right-hand scale passages, which individualize each note in pianissimo, are well-recorded. The popular “Raindrop Prelude” is notable for the questioning coloration de Pachmann gives the D-flat melody, with the “raindrops” pulsating underneath, and for the way he colors the secondary theme in the middle section, to sound like a supplication. Something about de Pachmann’s playing seems to get underneath the music, and to be somehow on Chopin’s own “wavelength.”
Just as Pachmann had the honor to record some of the earliest acoustical piano recordings to be made in England, when he returned there in June 1925 he repeated the honor by recording some of the earliest piano recordings in the new electrical process. Unfortunately the sound of these pioneer electricals is brittle and tinny, and they were no better at capturing his distinctive touch than many of his acoustic recordings.
The vaudeville atmosphere present at his concerts now dominated his later appearances. He talked incessantly while he played, and as he aged, his hearing became affected by his eccentric platform behavior. Unhappily, all this is too-well captured on his electric recordings. The frantic tempi, the textural inaccuracies, the headlong rushing of one musical phrase into another, at times making the music almost unrecognizable, were symptoms of the exhaustion and stress the seventy-seven year old pianist was suffering. The C-sharp Minor Waltz sounds like a parody of his 1907 recording; the C-sharp Minor Polonaise, with its hasty tempi as if he had a train to catch, is comical; the Opus 64, A-flat Waltz is given a fitful, petulant reading. Hearing such performances one wishes that the artist would relax if only to let the music breathe. The Nocturne in D-flat feels rushed and restless, and sounds like a different pianist from the earlier Columbia disc … the one too fast, the other too slow. The lack of repose and the fast tempo on the electrical recording causes Pachmann some difficulties in the cadenza, which misses his customary elegance. The tinny, hard sound doesn’t help either, and even contributes to the tense atmosphere, which envelops the performance.
These terrible performances were for decades the most accessible of Pachmann’s recordings and I think are primarily responsible for his low reputation among some musicians. Combining this playing with accounts of his eccentric platform behavior, it is easy for some to dismiss him as a charlatan and not a serious artist. The recordings on which he can be heard talking became notorious. (We now know that the HMV company encouraged him to talk during the recording sessions.)
After a year’s rest in Italy, he returned to England for some concerts in 1927 and made two more recordings there. With the exception of a disc of Chopin’s “Black Key Etude,” made in 1925 but issued after the pianist’s death, these proved to be his last. The electrical process had improved in the two years, and both the Mendelssohn prelude and the Chopin nocturne, each in E minor, benefit from the more attractive sound. For the first time we can hear de Pachmann as he probably sounded before the public.
The Mendelssohn is notable for its admirable vigor. He plays the arpeggi in soft, brush-like waves against a penetrating yet haunting cantabile melody. The tone brightens and the work progresses and ends triumphantly with great zest and verve.
As for the Chopin Nocturne in E Minor, you can hardly say he plays the work. It floats from his fingers like a beloved memory that can never be recaptured. The matchless beauty of tone brightens with the articulated scale passages only to return even softer, creating a spell that remains long after the record ends. This is his best electric recording, his final testament and a vindication of his art. It is sad to think that of the seventy or so recordings he made, only the last two capture the true sound of his playing.
Though de Pachmann made recordings that were not worthy of him, particularly most of those from his declining years, there are as I have noted some stunning, even unforgettable recorded performances. If they can never replace the memories of the concert performances that his admirers cherished, for us uninitiated who never heard him, they at least suggest his greatness. Perhaps the pianist was right when he said at the end of his life, “I shall not be forgotten, I have made some gramophone records. And when your children and your grandchildren ask you who was this de Pachmann? You will be able to show them how he played and understood the works of Chopin. And though they cannot see me, they will hear my voice through my music and they will know why all the world worshipped de Pachmann.”
© Edward Blickstein, 2012
* Edward Blickstein’s definitive biography of Vladimir de Pachmann, written with Gregor Benko, will be published in 2012 by Scarecrow Press
These four CDs present all of Vladimir de Pachmann’s known recordings. In a twenty year period, from 1907 to 1927, he recorded for three companies, often duplicating repertoire. Because of Pachmann’s immense popularity, none of his records are particularly rare, though his earliest ones are scarce and difficult to find in top condition. Through the generosity of several private collectors and the resources of the International Piano Archives at Maryland, we have been able to work with multiple copies of all of Pachmann’s published discs, as well as test pressings of six unpublished sides. In remastering these, I chose the best example from all available copies, playing each at the correct speed and with the optimum stylus size. Clicks and pops were removed, as well as enough surface noise to make the recordings listenable without degrading the piano tone.
Pachman’s first recordings were made in 1907 in London for the Gramophone Company, known then as “The Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd.” These discs suffer from speed instability of the recording apparatus causing a change in pitch over the course of each side. Chopin’s G Major Nocturne was additionally flawed by several lurches in pitch. We are fortunate that these defects can be corrected with today’s technology, making it possible to hear the recordings in proper pitch for the first time. His next group, in 1909 again for the Gramophone Company, shows considerable sonic improvement, with no discernable pitch instability.
Pachmann’s Victor discs from 1911 and 1912 sound tubby and lack focus. With the use of proper stylus size and equalization, however, Pachmann’s articulation can be heard with greater clarity. The only instance of serious pitch fluctuation occurs in the “Funeral March” of Chopin’s second sonata, which has been corrected.
Several recordings from this group were assigned catalogue numbers but for reasons unknown remained unpublished. Matrices B-11208 and B-11931 exist as test pressings, which we have grouped with the published discs. Other test pressings of unpublished Pachmann Victors were once owned by the pianist’s manager, Cesco Pallottelli. In 1961 Edward Blickstein visited Pallottelli and made tape recordings of those unique copies, placing the microphone in front of an acoustic gramophone. The test pressings have since disappeared, so it appears that Blickstein’s amateur tape rescued the recordings for posterity. Although the sound is poor, several of these unissued discs are, paradoxically, among Pachmann’s most exemplary recordings.
The 1923 and 1924 Victor acoustic sessions yielded six published sides, all sonically superior to the earlier Victor recordings, exhibiting a greater frequency range and less horn resonance and surface noise. Two takes of Schumann’s Novelette in F were published, take one on HMV and take four on Victor, while take three exists as an unpublished test pressing. Several discographies list two takes of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” as published: take two on HMV and take five on Victor. An examination of the HMV disc does reveal a “2” pressed into the shellac, but in fact, the performance is identical with take five issued by Victor. A test pressing of take six also exists.
The 1915/1916 English Columbia recordings are perhaps the most unrewarding Pachmann discs to remaster because the sound is so remote. The original issues were pressed on extremely noisy shellac, making some almost unlistenable. Luckily the entire group was re-pressed in the early 1920s on superior material, and the present transfers have been made from later pressings.
Pachmann’s electric records are probably his most ubiquitous. Made for the Gramophone Company, they were distributed widely in the U.K., but occasionally one finds French, Australian, and Japanese pressings yielding quieter surfaces than the crackly English pressings. His two final sides were issued by Victor, pressed on quiet shellac during the mid-1930s. Among these last electric recordings, we have located two previously unreleased items, a fourth recording of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” and an alternative take of the “Minute Waltz” that contains introductory remarks that differ slightly from the published take.
The Complete Vladimir de Pachmann
Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), the most controversial of the few pianists alive during Chopin's lifetime who also left recordings, studied piano at the Vienna Conservatory with Joseph Dachs and theory with Bruckner, making his debut in 1869. Soon he heard Tausig, von Bülow, and Rubinstein, stopped performing entirely and locked himself up to practice compulsively. When he emerged ten years later his playing had features of all three, plus a uniquely smooth, pearly quality. He began to appear in public again in 1882, just about the time when he met Liszt, whose personality and playing became the greatest influence in his life. Always high-strung, he gradually discovered that if he talked to his audiences, his stage fright lessened. The public adored his Chopin, which frustrated him, for he wanted to play Beethoven also. Within a few years he gave in to public demand and became the number one Chopin specialist of all time. Concurrently his platform behavior evolved into a kind of show, with grimaces, muttered asides, and boasts. As well known for his eccentricities as for his Chopin, the American critic James Huneker dubbed him "The Chopinzee," and the sobriquet stuck. Pachmann was the first internationally famous pianist to record commercially, making many records of varying quality over two decades starting with 1907 G and Ts. He was quoted saying any of his records were not "One percent of de Pachmann," although at the end he realized that glimmers of his art would live through them. A few of his worst records became his biggest sellers, for on them he talks during his playing. But many of his lesser-known recordings are among the greatest ever, unique, for his pianistic style harks back to the Hummel school. Knowing only his worst records, critics have dismissed him, but on his best records one can hear some of the finest piano playing ever recorded. De Pachmann-biographer Edward Blickstein contributes the liner notes.