Monday, 9 April 2012

Vladimir de Pachmann: Poet and Poseur

Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), apart from being a great pianist, was one of the greatest eccentrics in the history of piano playing.
He was born in Odessa and received his first music lessons (starting on violin) from his very musical father, who was Jewish. His mother came from an ancient Turkish family.
As a boy of 18 years old, he entered the Vienna Conservatory to study with Joseph Dachs, a very "old school" pianist who had studied with Carl Czerny.

Young Vladimir studied in Vienna from 1867 to 1869, but in fact he had very few lessons with Dachs; he did study harmony and counterpoint with Anton Bruckner.
He went back to Odessa to give some concerts, but especially after hearing the great virtuoso Carl Tausig, Pachmann was not satisfied with his playing and retired for many years, studying alone. 

Eventually he gained confidence and he was very successful, notably in the works of Chopin in which he must have excelled.
In the 1880s Pachmann also received some advice and encouragement from Franz Liszt.
Pachmann first married one of his pupils, Maggie Okey,

but later he lived with his secretary Francesco Pallottelli, who wrote a very interesting biographical sketch:

He made his first very successful tour in America in 1890, returning many times, until his last Carnegie Hall recital in 1925.
There is one surviving silent movie of Vladimir de Pachmann,  making a piano roll recording:

One can see a very fluent technique, a free wrist and rather flat, strong, independent fingers. One of his principles was that there should be ease and grace in every movement.

He had a special idea about how to use (or not use) the wrists during playing:
"Perhaps a simple experiment will serve to illustrate. Put your elbow upon the table and let your forearm fall with your hand in comfortable playing condition. Do not curve the fingers too much, because that is unnatural.
Now, with the hand and forearm in this position, move the hand (without moving the forearm) as far as possible to the left and hold it in that position for a few moments. You will notice at once that there is a strain at the joint of the wrist. Now move the hand in the opposite direction and there is likewise a strain. It is this strain that, to my mind, distorts the muscular and the nervous condition of the hand and the forearm and results in much horrible playing. The tone cannot be musical and beautiful if the wrist is stiff or strained in this manner. Therefore I never move the hand from side to side. The lateral movement occurs at the elbow or at the shoulder and not at the wrist. The hand is on a straight line with the arm. Is this 'stiff wrists?' On the contrary it is the very opposite, and the one sure remedy for stiff wrists. The hands and arms are always free and unconstrained."

Later in life, Pachmann's behaviour and ideas could be rather bizarre... for example, according to Harold Schonberg in his book "The Great Pianists", he claimed that "milking cows was better finger exercise than anything devised by the mind of man".

He would also talk to the audience, insulting some people, commenting the music he played, inviting other pianists in the audience to play, or showing "Chopin's socks" on stage...
But despite these eccentricities, he must have been a poetic pianist with great personal magnetism and a wonderful delicate touch... in his best recordings, there is also a marvellous tone production:

Pachmann Quotes

"Each note in a composition should be polished until it is as perfect as a jewel —as perfect as an Indian diamond — those wonderful scintillating, ever-changing orbs of light. In a really great masterpiece each note has its place just as the stars, the jewels of heaven, have their places in their constellations. When a star moves it moves in an orbit that was created by nature."

"Great musical masterpieces owe their existence to mental forces quite as miraculous as those which put the heavens into being. The notes in compositions of this kind are not there by any rule of man. They come through the ever mystifying source which we call inspiration. Each note must bear a distinct relation to the whole."

"In playing Chopin all lies in the fingering. How many have cunningly watched me do these same things to find out how I did them. Did they find out? Scarcely; they would not have kept on playing with such a hard tone afterward, if they had. It has taken me thirty years to study out these things for myself. Let them do the same. Why should I give away my bread? I am sixty, and I shall soon be dead: it is well."

"The whole question of melody is of the utmost importance where Chopin is concerned, for many of his most beautiful pieces resemble songs which, alas! too often lose their beauty at the hands of second-rate pianists, through the voice being drowned by the accompaniment. Infinite delicacy and elegance are required for the playing of these songs on the piano, and much may be done to ensure perfection by listening to great singers, observing how they obtain their effects, and adapting their methods to the piano."

"Je suis le roi des pianistes."

 "The trouble with most pupils in studying a piece is that when they seek individuality and originality they go about it in the wrong way, and the result is a studied, stiff, hard performance. Let them listen to the voice, I say; to the inner voice, the voice which is speaking every moment of the day, but to which so many shut the ears of their soul." 

"The artist's genius is not genuine until he can comprehend Bach. To play Bach is to play the piano. His compositions are drops of pure gold. In Bach you must read between the lines; he is a little obscure here and there, but the more you understand him the more you see his infinite greatness."

"This then is my life secret — work, unending work. I have no other secrets. I have developed myself along the lines revealed to me by my inner voice. I have studied myself as well as my art." 


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