It is said that Mr. de Pachmann has fallen heir to a handsome fortune.
A brother, scarcely known to him in life, has left him a princely bequest.
The pianist abandoned his tour, however, on that account, that he may
indulge in solitude his passion for the collecting of gems and rare jewels,
but will be heard yet a little longer as the last prophet of a school of
pianism that, at his death, will face extinction.
Liszt's centenary reminded that the piano itself and the ways of playing
it have changed. Liszt compelled the makers to give their instruments more
sonority, bigger tone, to make a machine whereby one man could cope with an
orchestra. When he, returning after an absence, won fickle Paris back from
the worship of Thalberg's polished and genteel playing to the inspired fire
and passion of his own, it was a sign of the epoch of interpretative pianism.
Then after Liszt — the deluge. He begot a long line, indeed a
spurious brood of "interpretative pianists", pounders, athletes and men of
brawn, who may possess a species of fire and passion, but it cannot always be
called inspired. Many of them are "Liszt pupils", and spent as much as a day
or two at Weimar, perhaps were admitted to one of the afternoon sessions at
the master's house.
It might be a debatable question how great a service to art was the
perfection of the modern single piece steel frame of the piano with a
resistance power of from 24,000 to 40,000 pounds. In the days of the
clavichord it was necessary to play with finesse to play well. Now there are
other ways to impress a hearer. Thunders in the bass with the aid of a
sustaining pedal are inscrutable to many and profoundly imposing, a heritage
not to be charged to Liszt solely, for there are yet those who can testify to
his adroitness upon occasion to sculpturesque music of quaint and delicate
design, but rather to the various brood who delight their souls in the
expansive and ear-filling reverberations of the modern grand.
The pleasure, then, and the benediction to senses to find that Mr. de
Pachmann had returned, the magician as of old, creating a haunting spell of
elusive beauty by the magic of his touch. Jordan Hall, the concert
auditorium of the New England Conservatory, was filled on October 21 to the
last seat of floor and balcony, and a more intimate audience half circled
the piano on the stage.
The pianist had the lights turned off above him, and as the cloudy
autumn afternoon waned, the outline of the form at the piano — the
locks now hanging to the shoulders Lisztian fashion — sank deeper into
the twilight. It is not a question whether it was or was not an ingeniously
devised stage setting. It was a sympathetic frame to the eye for the
sensitiveness of spirit of the Chopin that sounded through it to the ear.
It should be an hour of imperishable memory to every student of expression
who heard, who would make voice, piano or violin an instrument to express
beauty, clearly, simply, masterfully.
In playing such as this the mind of the hearer is not conscious of the
amount of physical tone. This tone is not a quantity to be
measured by the marks p and f, but an
essence, whose gradations are in intensity rather than volume. Tones
which might be measured as the softest are the most elusive, evanescent, the
most exquisite in their palpable unreality. Their sheen is seen from afar,
and should one go to take them, it would be with the fear that they would
vanish. Tone which is more powerful seems more intimate, enveloping,
stimulating, as though fine particles of it pervaded and filled all space,
and if all of them were poured in upon the ear, their contact would be an
exhilaration to nerves rather than a painful assault upon them.
How does De Pachmann avoid the warring vibrations perpetrated upon a
defenceless public by the acrobats? These gentlemen will say that Mr. de
Pachmann does not and cannot play ff. The metronome can
measure the rate of speed at which a man can play, but there is no device
sold at music stores to register the amount of noise which he makes.
Dynamic graduation of tone is wholly relative, as is all appreciation for
nuance in art, as for contrast in life. A few pennies are riches to the
child. A tone of only moderate loudness if properly produced, may be ample
to crown a climax with power and distinction, if the scale of values, of
which it is a part, has held it in reserve until now, and made the
mind more alert and the hearing more keen by a discreet husbandry of tone.
But who shall analyze De Pachmann's tone, and say with what degree of
stroke, or of pressure touch, or by what combination of both he produces it?
The making of individual tones upon the piano does not offer a wide latitude
of possible variations in quality. "Color" is to be found more particularly
in the treatment of a succession of tones, in the profile of the figure or
phrase, where the pianist is then able to inflect, and to impart
characterizing, dramatizing values which have their interpretative and
in this moulding of the contour of a melodic line that much of the
ineffable charm of De Pachmann's playing resides. His rubato is the free,
spontaneous, myriad-versioned rhythm of nature, as the waving of a field of
grain in the breeze, the swaying tree tops at the approaching storm. It may
be thus today, and of a different cast tomorrow, yet however it is, it seems
the complete and inevitable expression of the thought, as though the hearer
should say: "This must have been in the composer's mind. This is the one way
it should go".
Is it not this improvisational, this rhapsodic quality which constitutes
and illumines the remarkable playing of this man that gives to it the supreme
attribute of poetry? It is as though he wove the filaments of each piece anew,
a spontaneous creation of that moment, as though yet another time the piano
had confided to him its secrets, and he had published them in tone, not as a
brazen herald from the housetops, but as a lover would breath the confessions
of his mistress.
A few days after this recital I attended another by a well schooled young
pianist whose program traversed Brahms and various moderns. The pieces were
studiously prepared and played not without intelligence, but whereas before
there had been no suggestion of the printed page or its directions as to
phrasing, I now saw a series of crescendos and decrescendos, whether they ever
existed in print or not, and not only saw but felt, indeed rode over them
after the fashion of the galloping horse in a merry-go-round. Thus the player
went curveting through measure after measure, a flaring increase of tone with
an inevitably accompanying increase of pace, a rounding over the nob of the
hill to get your breath, then subsiding into the valley again, only to repeat
the sea-sickening process.
It smells of printer's ink. This is not interpretation, or even tasteful
phrasing. It is an unpleasant spectacle of a piano player lashed to the
pendulum of habit. He does not play the rhythm. It plays him.
On the contrary, De Pachmann, when he played the D flat waltz as an
encore, with a throng of zealous and eager students pressed close about him,
the elasticity, the unstudied vaporous charm, the ravishing fleetness of the
thing took one's breath.
This plasticity of style could scarcely exist without elasticity of tone,
a tone which has no edges, which does not make one wish it were correct to
wear ear-mufflers in the concert room. How Mr. de Pachmann makes such tone I
do not know; I know of no one who does know.
In Chicago there is a gentleman who teaches people to sing. Successful
work has kept his spirit young. He tells his pupils when they have been
eating unwisely, and he hears, as by a sixth sense, the qualities of tone in
a voice that he must eliminate. He allows a voice to build slowly upon the
foundation of the breath into the amplifying, spiritualizing power of the
overtone, and when he has finished, there is a purity, an evenness and poise
which sums up the essence of tone. It is this lyric principle that De Pachmann
infuses into his instrument, which is both unvocal and unlyric, and by which
he permits Chopin to speak as a true lyricist and poet.
At a future time it will be possible to speak more specifically of Mr. de
Pachmann's numbers, of his interpretation of them — including that of
the Chopin Revolutionary Étude with which I cannot altogether
agree — and to consider further the qualities of an art that every
student of pianism should ponder with diligence and profound respect, for it
holds secrets which many of the stalwart virtuosi would do well to learn
— if they can.