Vlado Perlemuter was the third of four brothers whose father was a rabbi. Although born of Polish Jewish parents in Lithuania, at the age of four he was taken to Paris where he lived for the rest of his life and is therefore thought of as a French pianist. He began to learn the piano at the age of nine and two years later received piano lessons from Moritz Moszkowski which continued for the next two years. At thirteen he joined the piano class of Alfred Cortot at the Paris Conservatoire and when he was fifteen received a premier prix in piano. At the examination he played Fauré’s Theme and Variations Op. 73; the composer was chairman of the jury at the examination. The following year, when he was sixteen, Perlemuter won a prix d’honneur for his performance of the Variations, Interlude and Finale on a theme of Rameau by Paul Dukas. His success continued when he won the Diémer Prize for which only those students who had already won a premier prix could compete. In 1921 Perlemuter began to give concerts, subsequently occasionally meeting Gabriel Fauré, for whom he played.
A few years later Perlemuter heard Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and the impression this work made upon him led him to study and learn the complete works of Ravel between 1925 and 1927. For six months during 1927 Perlemuter had the rare opportunity of studying Ravel’s works with the composer himself, travelling regularly to the composer’s home in Montfort-l’Amaury. At this time he also studied with Robert Lortat. Two years later Perlemuter performed the complete solo piano works by Ravel in two recitals in Paris, the first pianist to do this. In 1953 he published details of his work with Ravel in a book entitled Ravel d’après Ravel (Lausanne 1953). He also gave chamber music recitals with Gabriel Bouillon, Pierre Fournier and the Calvet Quartet.
During the 1930s Perlemuter strove to establish a career as a pianist. In 1934 he played a few pieces by Prokofiev for The Music Society in London, and made his Wigmore Hall recital debut in 1937. It seems that rather than playing the music of Ravel for which he was so suited, he chose a stolid programme which included Bach’s Italian Concerto BWV 971 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’. Two years later he returned to the Wigmore Hall, this time choosing repertoire in which he was acknowledged as an interpreter: Ravel’s Sonatine, Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E flat Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ and Chopin’s Préludes Op. 28.
In 1938, as World War II approached, Perlemuter was appointed as an assistant professor at the Paris Conservatoire; but by 1942 he was desperately trying to get himself and his wife to Switzerland as his name was on a list of French Jews to be arrested. Cortot, although Commissioner of High Arts in the Vichy government, did nothing to help him, something which Perlemuter never forgave. He was not permitted to perform in Switzerland, so the war years were a difficult time for Perlemuter who had a breakdown requiring him to spend three years in a sanatorium. He returned to Paris in the late 1940s, in 1950 resuming his performing career and taking up a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire: his most famous pupils are Michel Dalberto and Christian Zacharias. Teaching was an important part of Perlemuter’s career. He gave master-classes in Japan, Britain and Canada and served on the juries of many piano competitions, but he also performed regularly in Europe, North Africa and Japan. He often visited Britain, but when he played at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1962 The Times’s critic referred to the concert erroneously as his London recital debut. Although Perlemuter rarely visited America, he was Pianist in Residence at Indiana University in Bloomington, Illinois; however he apparently returned to Europe before the end of his contract. He was made an Officier de la Légion d’honneur and a Commmandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Perlemuter is known primarily for his performances of Ravel and Chopin. He also played Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Fauré, Franck and Debussy. His style is one of clarity, variety of tone and lack of obvious virtuosity. He penetrates to the heart of the music, revealing it in its simplicity and naturalness. He was a nervous performer, with memory lapses and inaccuracies being evident in concerts, especially nearer the end of his career. An example is a Prom concert from August 1964 when during a performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto Op. 54 Perlemuter had a serious memory lapse, but somehow he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent managed to hold things together.
The majority of Perlemuter’s recordings were made after the age of fifty, but in the days of 78rpm discs he did record a few sides, most notably Liszt’s Deux légendes for the Lumen label. Perlemuter gives excellent readings of both Légendes, which are full of rhythmic fluidity, and he extracts wonderful tonal qualities from the Pleyel piano. He also accompanied soprano Ginette Guillamat in a Fauré song for French HMV in 1937. It was not until 1955 that Perlemuter was asked to record his authoritative versions of the complete works of Ravel. These were made for the American Vox company, and included the complete solo piano music as well as the piano concertos with the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne and Jascha Horenstein.
Perlemuter made a few LPs for the Concert Hall label which include Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet with the Pascal String Quartet. Concert Hall produced what is one of his best discs, an LP of works by Chopin including a wonderful Barcarolle Op. 60 where Perlemuter’s lustrous sound is caught to perfection. No less impressive on this disc are his accounts of the Ballade No. 2 in F major Op. 38, the Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49 and the Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 31.
In the 1960s and 1970s Perlemuter recorded a great deal for the BBC in London and INA in France. Sir William Glock, head of music at the BBC, thought Perlemuter’s Chopin comparable to Schnabel’s Beethoven and had him record most of Chopin’s works for the BBC. He also played the complete works of Ravel on French radio in 1950. INA have issued on compact disc two chamber music performances from the 1960s of the Quintets by César Franck and Gabriel Fauré, whilst IMG/BBC Legends have issued an excellent Chopin disc which includes the Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58 from 1964 and the Préludes Op. 28 from 1972.
From 1974 Perlemuter recorded a large part of his repertoire for the British label Nimbus. He recorded the major works of Chopin including the ballades, études, préludes, many of the nocturnes and the two piano sonatas. Other repertoire includes Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17, Études Symphoniques Op. 13 and Kreisleriana Op. 16, a disc of Fauré and two of Ravel. He also recorded some repertoire that he had played from the beginning of his career: Bach’s Italian Concerto, some Beethoven sonatas and the Variations and Fugue in E flat Op. 35. The recording of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor Op. 39 is particularly fine. It was recorded in 1990 when Perlemuter was eighty-six. It has wonderful colours and shadings of tone and encapsulates all the excellent qualities of his playing. The complete études were recorded in 1983 when Perlemuter was seventy-nine, and some of the more taxing ones reveal his age. He recorded the Piano Sonata in B minor by Liszt in 1974 and Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17 in 1990. Many of the Nimbus recordings are extremely reverberant and take some adjusting to on the part of the listener, but once this is accomplished, one finds many wonderful things in this important body of work from Perlemuter.
Two chamber music recordings were made for Nimbus: Beethoven’s Quintet for piano and wind in E flat Op. 16 and Mozart’s Quintet for piano and wind in E flat K. 452.
Fondly remembered as a subtle interpreter of Chopin and an important link to Ravel, Perlemuter remains a fine, sensitive artist with a tonal palette surpassing that of many other French-trained pianists.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).