VLADIMIR DE PACHMANN
Vladimir Pachmann’s father, Vincent, was an amateur violinist who had lived in Vienna, apparently coming into contact with Beethoven and Weber. At the time of Vladimir’s birth he was a professor of Roman law at the lyceum in Odessa. When he was twenty-four he had married Anastasia who was fourteen; she gave birth to thirteen children, nine of whom survived. Vincent was responsible for his son’s musical education during his early years in Odessa, but at the age of eighteen, Vladimir went to the Vienna Conservatory where he studied piano under Joseph Dachs, who had been a pupil of Czerny. He also studied counterpoint with Anton Bruckner. Whilst at the Conservatory Pachmann performed Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat and it was on this occasion that he met the composer for the fist time, who offered encouragement and advice. He then returned to Odessa where he gave a successful series of concerts. He was not, however, satisfied with his performances, and after hearing one of Liszt’s greatest pupils, Carl Tausig, he decided that for the next eight years he would study alone.
Vincent died in 1878 and Vladimir went to Leipzig where he gave recitals and played with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Carl Reinecke. However, these concerts in Leipzig and further ones in Berlin again left him feeling the same discontent with his playing, and he subsequently retired to study for a further two years. After this he was at last ready to face the public with confidence, giving three highly successful debut concerts in Paris and Vienna where critic Eduard Hanslick commented, ‘With one stroke, Mr von Pachmann has advanced to the ranks of first class artists.’ The Paris concerts, where he played recitals and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21, were such a success that he was immediately invited to London, where he played the same concerto as well as Beethoven’s Concerto in G major Op. 58. Already critics were commenting on his exquisite touch, the most noticeable and unique facet of his playing.
Although he had few pupils, in 1881 Pachmann began to give lessons to Maggie Okey (1864–1952), an Australian woman living in London, and they were married in 1884. They had three children, but after 1905 Pachmann lived with his secretary Francesco Pallottelli.
After his first triumphant tour of America in 1890, Pachmann returned regularly, giving his last performance there at Carnegie Hall in 1925. In both Europe and America Pachmann was hailed as the greatest of Chopin players, but it was commented that he did not have the necessary strength to deliver Beethoven as this composer was accustomed to be heard. He had however given Liszt recitals in America which included such physically demanding works as the Sonata in B minor, the Étude de concert La Leggierezza, and the Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli. As the years went by, his repertoire was reduced to almost exclusively Chopin, plus some Mendelssohn and encore pieces. Pachmann’s unique touch and sound were the result of a technique based on completely free wrists and fingers with no tension, and a finger independence almost akin to the French school of playing. A short piece of silent film from the 1920s displays this, where his fingers look as if they are made of rubber.
Pachmann’s reputation as a Chopin specialist went hand in hand with his growing reputation for eccentricity. During recitals he would talk to the audience and to fellow pianists, even sometimes getting them on the stage to play; bringing on ‘Chopin’s socks’, demanding that ugly people be removed from the front rows, and indulging in various other bizarre forms of behaviour. It is this eccentric reputation that has survived him, which is unfortunate because it is obvious from his best recordings that Pachmann was one of the greatest of pianists, whose beauty and poetry at the keyboard could literally mesmerise his audience.
By the time he made his last records in 1925 and 1927 Pachmann was nearly eighty and unfortunately drawing audiences who went as much for his running commentary on the music as the music itself. Two titles published by HMV at this time include his comments, giving an idea of what the live experience must have been like. He also was not averse to altering the text and playing the Waltz in D flat Op. 64 No.1, as he tells us, ‘à la Paganini, then cantabile à la Chopin’. He was a very great admirer of Leopold Godowsky and plays Godowsky’s ending to Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 No. 5 shouting, ‘Godowsky was the author!’ During the same recording he shouts (whilst playing) ‘heavy piano!’ meaning he is struggling with a stiff-actioned keyboard. This instrument was, however, Pachmann’s own Baldwin piano that HMV had taken to their studios in the Small Queen’s Hall.
Some of these later electrical recordings are successful, particularly where the microphone has caught Pachmann’s luminous tone in some Chopin nocturnes, or the grace and elegance of some of the mazurkas; but some sound mannered and rhythmically unstable. A few of the recordings show that he did have the power for larger works as is evident in the Ballade in A flat by Chopin, recorded in 1912. It is in the earliest recordings that we get a glimpse of Pachmann as he must have been at the height of his career. He was one of the first internationally important pianists to record, for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in London in 1907. These primitive discs capture the uniqueness of Pachmann’s art in works that suit him best: Chopin’s Étude Op. 25 No. 9 and Waltzes Op. 64, Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso and Liszt’s Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto. After this he recorded in America for Victor, then for Columbia in 1915 and 1916. More sessions with Victor in the early twenties were followed by the final HMV sessions in London.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist