. . .
Perhaps the most exquisite and the most fragile thing
in the world at present is the Chopin playing of Vladimir
de Pachmann. For more than a quarter of a century
writers have been attempting to reproduce his coloured
music in coloured words: they have all failed. De
Pachmann is an exotic, a hothouse plant. Not a hothouse
plant among many other plants, but a plant living
luxuriously and solitarily and with exaggerated
selfconsciousness in its own hothouse.
In thinking of him, one feels that he belongs to the very
last minute of civilisation's progress. All the civilisations
of the past have come and gone and returned; they have
worked age-long with tireless industry; mankind has
struggled upwards and rushed precipitately downwards
through thousands of years; cities have been sacked and
countries ravaged; Babylon, Nineveh, Athens and Rome
have bloomed flauntingly and wilted most tragically:
and the most exquisite thing that has been produced by
all this suffering, all this unimaginable labour, is the
Chopin playing of de Pachmann. The world has toiled
for thousands of years and has at last given us this thing
more delicate than lace, more brittle than porcelain,
more shining than gold. . . .
There is the rather painful question of this pianist's
eccentricities. One can discuss them publicly for de
Pachmann himself continually thrusts them on the public.
You know to what I refer: the running commentary of
words, gestures, nods, smiles and leers which he almost
invariably passes not only on the music he plays, but also
on his manner of playing it. I refuse to believe that this
most extraordinary behaviour is mere affectation: it
seems to me a direct and irrepressible expression of the
man's very soul. It is not ridiculous, because it is so
serious and so natural. Nevertheless, it is entirely
ineffective. It does not help in the least. Rather does it
mar. To see the performer winking slyly at you when he
has, as it were, "pulled off" a particularly delicate nuance
does not give that nuance a more subtle flavour: it merely
distracts the attention and sets one conjecturing what
really is going on in the performer's mind. It has appeared
to me that the pianist has been saying: "You noticed
that, didn't you? Well, you couldn't do it if you spent
a whole lifetime trying; yet how easily I achieved it!".
The large, smooth face, with its loose mouth and dizzied
eyes, is the face of a magician out of a story book. It is
not a real face. It has only one of the attributes of
power—egotism. Egotism has furrowed every line on that
countenance; it dilates the eyes. Egotism runs through
the sensitive fingers. I have stood by his side and wilfully
shut my ears on the music and fastened my eyes on his
face; but I learned nothing. I do not know if his mind
dwells aloof from all emotion, his intellect functioning
automatically—as would seem to be the case; or if,
experienced and cynical, he has the power of pouring the
very essence of his spirit into sound, laughing at himself
and us as he does so—but laughing more at us than at
himself, for we are deceived whilst he is not.
It is strange that so exotic a personality should have
a firm and unrelaxing hold on the public. He is not
caviare to the general. Villiers de l'lsle Adam is
worshipped by the few; Walter Pater cannot have more
than a thousand sincere disciples, but de Pachmann is
adored by millions. "Millions" is no exaggeration.
People are taken out of themselves whilst he plays. You
remember, don't you? the Paderewski craze in America
fifteen years ago, when the platform was stormed and
taken by assault night after night by society ladies.
I witnessed pretty much the same kind of thing at a
de Pachmann recital in a Lancashire town; but the latter
pianist was stormed, not by society ladies, but by
unemotional bank clerks, stockbrokers, merchants, working
men and women. At the end of the concert, they flowed
on to the platform in hundreds, and surrounded the
pianist whilst he played encore after encore, smiling
vacantly the while and enjoying himself immensely,
pausing between each piece only to motion his ring of
worshippers a little farther from the piano.
An enigmatic creature, this; a creature who will never
give up his secret; perhaps, even, a creature who is not
aware that he possesses a secret.
. . .