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[This article appeared in The Musical Times, No. 1080, Vol. 74, February 1933, pages 125-126.
This web version is dated 21 November 2005.]

Pachmann — An Impression

by Erik Brewerton

picture of Pachmann facing slightly left

Par 1 It is difficult to believe that there will soon be many good pianists who have never heard Pachmann play, for he seems to belong to the art of the pianoforte just as certain famous names belong to the manufacture of it. In recent years the pianoforte has lost some of its pre-eminence, for it is essentially a romantic medium of expression and a product of the last century. Pachmann was a link with a distant past, and took us back to the time when Weber and Mendelssohn held a prominent place in the pianist's répertoire, when Raff and Rubinstein were played, and the music of Chopin was still a lively subject for discussion.
Par 2 But Pachmann was not a robust romantic with extravagant and miscellaneous ideas. A contemporary of Liszt and Wagner he showed, so far as we know, little of their wide range of interests. It was rather Chopin's mind, in its lack of curiosity, its good taste and its distinction, that dominated his outlook and made him play his music almost to the exclusion of that of other composers. Obviously it was not a complete Chopin that he gave us; the passion of the second and third Scherzos, the grandeur of some of the Etudes, and the fervour of the Sonatas and Polonaises were not to be found there. When it is said that he did not 'interpret,' the criticism is probably correct. But in his case it is beside the point, for he had no desire to be intellectual or dramatic; all he cared about, particularly in his Chopin programmes, was beautiful playing. Chopin being the pianist's composer par excellence, it is not surprising that Pachmann played him so often, for there is no other composer for the instrument whose style is so appropriate and sure. With Pachmann it was all a question of style, and to try to think of the value of the music apart from its expression would be, to him, a radical mistake. A beautiful and appropriate touch, and not ideas, was the foundation of artistic playing. No idea in the world could justify an unpleasant tone, and the greatest sincerity was no excuse for rough playing. Chopin, who found Beethoven 'rough,' and disliked discussions on art, probably held these views; it is certain Pachmann did.
Par 3 A tremendous faith in 'touch' with the most careful and assiduous practising, the repetition of pieces until they became a rhythmical part of the pianist's nature — such was the equipment of Pachmann's playing. It was not a very large equipment, and might have proved, with his limited répertoire, insufficient but for his unwavering belief in his own superlative merits and an original fancy that decorated all his performances and never faded. There was little humanity in his playing, though there was poetry of a cold p.126 elfin quality. In such pieces as the D flat Nocturne he addressed himself to the 'nerves,' as the grimaces he made testified, and it was a good thing for his reputation that he seldom played Beethoven. That 'holy earnestness' Goethe acclaims was entirely absent in him. He could pass from a short Chopin Valse to a Ballade when another type of player would have shrunk from such violent contrast. A true virtuoso, he implied that the music had been specially written for him and he might do what he liked with it. The G minor Ballade and the B flat minor Scherzo of Chopin became quite light and cheerful under his hands. The true and abiding character of the music did not worry him. He was content to make it sound convincing for the moment as a pianoforte piece, not fix it permanently as a musical composition. He would have gone so far as to say that nobody who couldn't play the pianoforte had any right to pass an opinion on pianoforte music, and that anyone who could play the instrument would not want to pass an opinion but would prefer to express himself in tone. Every artist when he feels sure of his ground is inclined to be arrogant, and Pachmann could brook no criticism. In his own words he was le roi des pianistes.
Par 4 If his outlook was limited no one can deny his devotion to the instrument, which was supreme. In his last years certain eccentricities escaped from his manners into his performances and marred them, but this was generally in smaller pieces of a light nature. The Studies, Nocturnes, and the E major Scherzo of Chopin, with the Rondo in E flat of Weber, were examples of invariably highly finished achievements. In spite of all his capers he was a thoroughly sophisticated pianist who knew what he was about and was never slip-shod. Every recital he gave was an all-important event for him. He never went through it as if it were just a job to be done in a workmanlike manner. It was a particular audience he definitely played to each time, and he flattered it by taking it into his confidence and making it feel that it knew something about pianoforte-playing too. If he did not inspire, he delighted and refreshed, and you could learn from him. He sent you back to the instrument with the desire to play more reasonably and intelligently, for he made the pianoforte talk a natural language and not declaim in violent and hysterical accents. After hearing him you felt that to play well certainly meant much time, patience, and vigilance, but need not involve mechanical laborious practice, the straining of muscles and the 'cramming' of the memory. At one of his last recitals I heard him say that he would give all his art to have composed the Chopin Mazurka in C sharp minor from Op. 63. It was a remark that revealed the true enthusiast behind the frills and glitter of the celebrity.
Par 5 Many of us heard or remember Pachmann only as an old man, and in his lack of that dignity which softened and humanized the declining years of Liszt, there was a disturbing, even tragic element in his recitals. You felt that the artist might come to usurp his position and dethrone the man, that much might be said in favour of ordinary everyday relationships and interests. In his last appearances some such feeling became more accentuated and even checked applause. It is in old age that humanity should sound its deepest, tenderest note, and there was something incongruous in an old man of eighty concluding the last recital I heard him give, with Chopin's frivolous F major Valse, delightfully played with all the sparkle of his best form. For it was apparent that Pachmann would not play much longer, that the end of his career was approaching with the end of his days, and you would have liked to think of these two things as not so closely identified, that something had been left over to reassume its sway, to rise above pianoforte-playing even of the highest order, and cheerfully resign the triumphs of the concert-platform.