by P. J. Nolan
There was in the public career of Vladimir de Pachmann,
whose death was announced this week, an extraordinary and completely
bewildering alliance between art and showmanship.
One can understand why a charlatan may imagine that he will attract public
attention to himself by chattering on the concert platform to an audience
which has assembled to hear him play the piano.
But de Pachmann was in need of no such adventitious aid of this kind.
He was certainly not a charlatan. He was, as a matter of simple fact,
so illustrious a pianist that in his day he was regarded
as the finest living exponent of Chopin.
I heard him in New York about ten years ago.
Though the pianist was then in his seventy-fifth year he was able to exhibit
in ample degree the qualities which had secured that title for him.
To hear the chain of studies, waltzes, and mazurkas which he played
that afternoon was a memorable experience, so exquisitely refined,
so perfectly proportioned was the whole group.
It is true that in such works as the "Revolutionary Study" a great deal
of his fire and power had disappeared; but as I have said, he was then in
his seventy-fifth year.
How then did this man, a great artist, reconcile his sense of the claims of
art with his behaviour on the concert platform?
This is the singular problem of Pachmann's career.
At this recital at which I heard him in New York he talked persistently
to his audience.
It was not sufficient for him to talk at the end of a solo;
he sometimes interrupted a study to draw attention to his reading of a
particular passage, repeating this passage and comparing his performance of it
with that of Liszt.
All this, it will be agreed, must have proved extremely disturbing
to those who came to hear a master pianist interpret the classics
through the medium of the keyboard, and not by chattering about them.
Moreover, this talk of Pachmann for the most part threw very little light
on the music.
It seemed, in fact, to be mainly a eulogy of his own qualities as a pianist.
But this New York audience, like all other audiences of Pachmann, was willing
to listen to his musings and jests for the sake of the opportunity of hearing
this distinguished pianist play Chopin.
His eccentricities came to be tolerated with good-natured amusement.
He made it a practice, for example, to single out members of his audience
and pretend to play solely for their benefit.
In one London recital, when playing Chopin's Twentieth Prelude,
he exclaimed to a lady in the stalls,
"This is for you, because it is a picture of a beautiful English girl."
It was quite an ordinary thing for him to exclaim, "How lovely that is!"
upon playing a theme from one of the sonatas.
These characteristic antics at the piano were kept up for a great many years.
Pachmann himself used to say that these were an integral part of the expression
of his own personality.
In any case they were regarded by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic as
essential in a recital by de Pachmann.
Indeed the pianist himself related that on one occasion, having made a wager
with a friend on the point, he did not speak a word at a certain recital,
and that next day Mr Powell, his London agent, received two or three hundred
letters from disappointed people asking why Pachmann had been silent.
In New York, the critics, unaccustomed to the whims of Pachmann,
roundly took him to task because, as one of them said, they went
to Carnegie Hall to hear a piano recital,
and heard that with a lot of talk thrown in.
At his next recital two nights after, when the hall was packed,
Pachmann simply played the piano and never once opened his mouth.
The next day, is it is said, numbers of people wrote claiming their money back.
Audiences are very much the same all the world over.
As has already been said, Pachmann was a great pianist, so great that his
transcendent powers overwhelmed all these mannerisms.
At his last recital in London, almost half a century since he made his first
appearance there, the critics still marvelled at the delicacy of his touch
and the perfect smoothness of his passage work.
A pianist who makes his reputation as an exponent of the ultra-refined Chopin
may miss the robust and massive moods of some of the other great composers,
but in the field which he had chosen for himself,
Pachmann was probably unexcelled.