Notes 60.1 (2003) 173-174
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Vladimir de Pachmann: a Piano Virtuoso's Life and Art. By Mark Mitchell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. [xiv, 231 p. ISBN 0-253-34169-8. $37.95.] Illustrations, discography, list of works played, bibliographical notes, bibliography, index.
Concertgoers who lived in the years from 1882 to 1929 took a chance of being ridiculed if they attended a recital by Vladimir de Pachmann. He was blatantly offensive, petulant, and whimsically cruel. But he was also a pianist who mesmerized audiences with his glorious interpretation and performance of the music of Frédéric Chopin. These contradistinctions provided fodder for much consternation and laudation toward Pachmann in his heyday.
Pachmann (1848-1933) was the thirteenth child of a middle-class family in Odessa, Russia, the son of a Roman law professor and a Turkish countess. He began studying violin at age six, but by the age of ten preferred the piano. His father sent him to Vienna in 1867 to study at the Konservatorium der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde where he was remarkable from the beginning. When assigned two fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, he not only learned them in every key, he learned all the other fugues in any key and by memory. When assigned two Chopin etudes, he learned all of them by his next lesson, and by memory. At the end of the school year, he returned to Odessa where he taught and gave concerts for two years. Upon hearing Franz Liszt's pupil Carl Tausig perform, he postponed his debut and decided to spend the next eight years studying and practicing. At the end of the eight years, he gave a few recitals and played with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but still was not entirely satisfied with his playing. He retired another two years and studied with Vera Kologrivoff Rubio, one of Chopin's last assistants, who helped him with his preparation and style.
Finally Pachmann was ready, and he began his professional career in Vienna in 1882 with a debut at which he played Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Weber. The audience clearly preferred the Chopin, and other audiences followed suit. Pachmann was fastidious in his fingering and developed a unique method that enabled him to play Chopin with ease and brilliance. While critics were divided over his performances of other composers, most agreed that he was the prime interpreter and performer of Chopin.
Pachmann was vexed at times over the Chopin label because he maintained a varied repertoire. A glance at "Works Played 1882 (Vienna)-1929 (Vienna)" on p. 201 shows, in addition to Chopin, standard works by C. P. E. and J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Hans von Bülow, Muzio Clementi, Johann Baptist Cramer, Dvorák, Grieg, Handel, Haydn, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Anton Rubinstein, Saint-Saëns, Domenico Scarlatti, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Weber, and several other lesser-known composers.
Early in his career Pachmann realized that he must somehow stand out to gain and keep attention; he was fascinated by eccentricities and parlayed them into his persona. An added benefit was that these eccentricities helped to put him at ease while performing, and his performances were electrifying. The public began going to his concerts as much to witness what he might do as to hear him perform. He talked to his audiences, he sang, he pantomimed, he kissed his hands after playing a difficult passage, he lavished praise upon himself. Some of his fellow pianists, Sergey Rachmaninoff for one, disdained the man and avoided his concerts whenever possible. And no wonder. At one of Pachmann's recitals, he singled out Rachmaninoff and [End Page 173] embarrassed him to the extent that he wanted to leave.
In spite of abundant self-praise, Pachmann disliked praise whenever he played badly. He suffered from memory losses throughout his career, but most of the time effectively covered them up. Pachmann married his student, Annie Louise Margaret "Maggie" Okey, in 1884, when she was nineteen. While she had a rather successful performing career, Pachmann soon became jealous and began complaining about her to audiences. Once...