On Thanksgiving morning, before getting on with the day’s cooking, I was enjoying a few quiet moments alone, drinking my coffee, gazing out upon the sunlit, frost-covered grounds of the farmhouse we’d rented for a few days. I happened also to be reading Alice B. Toklas’s exemplary cookbook-cum-memoir when I came upon the following passage, amid a discussion of dishes much favored by the author in her childhood:
When treasures are recipes they are less clearly, less distinctly remembered than when they are tangible objects. They evoke however quite as vivid a feeling—that is, to some of us who, considering cooking an art, feel that a way of cooking can produce something that approaches an aesthetic emotion. What more can one say? If one had the choice of again hearing Pachmann play the two Chopin sonatas or dining once more at the Café Anglais, which would one choose?
Seeing the name Pachmann produced in me a small thrill. It took me back to my high school years in Florida, which is when I first heard a recording by the pianist in question, the incomparable Vladimir de Pachmann.
In those days, lying in bed late at night, I would often listen to a radio program that explored a wealth of vintage recordings, some legendary, others obscure. One night, the show was devoted to the work of de Pachmann, a pianist I’d never heard of, though I was hooked at once—how alluring, among other things, was his name, part Slavic, part Germanic, with that mysterious and florid de thrown in. The recordings, too, had the aura of fantasy. So ancient did they sound that the delicate piano lines barely had a chance to emerge from the cacophony of crackling and tape hiss. In the months that followed, I tried to find out what I could about this artist who murmured and muttered as he played with such panache. This was difficult in that pre-Internet dark age, and only many years later did I learn a few things about his life.
He was born in Odessa in 1848. His father, a university professor specializing in Roman law, was a skilled amateur violinist who knew Beethoven, Haydn, and Carl Maria von Weber. (The elder Pachmann not only performed in an orchestra under Haydn but also served as a pallbearer at the composer’s funeral.) De Pachmann began studies on the violin, then switched to the piano, and in 1868, he enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory—the two years spent there, which included theory lessons with Anton Bruckner, would constitute the only formal training of his life. De Pachmann made his debut back home in Odessa in 1869, but he didn’t start touring in earnest until 1882. Soon, he was a wildly popular figure on the concert stage (adding the aristocratic de to his name for effect), a successor in some ways to Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt, though his style was more intimate, more lyrical, less heroic, less overtly virtuosic.
Critics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries often wrote of de Pachmann’s tender and thoughtful approach at the keyboard, of his exquisite touch, of the poetic way he interpreted the scores of Chopin, Schumann, and Weber. As an article in the monthly Metropolitan magazine put it in 1900, de Pachmann “has the power of drawing from the piano melodies of such sweetness long drawn out, shadings and gradations of tone color so evanescent and subtle, that under his witchery technique itself becomes a problem spiritualized, and the piano an instrument with a voice, with the singing qualities of a violin, the swell of the organ, and the vibrations of the harp.”
Yet he was a pianist given to sharp eccentricities, mannerisms, and affectations on stage—he would grimace and pout in an exaggerated fashion, and he thought nothing of addressing his audience mid-performance, sometimes offering offhand commentary on the works he was playing. If he happened to be in a foul mood, the slightest thing could set him off: a late-arriving patron, the positioning of the piano, an uncomfortable shirt collar, or the temperature of the auditorium. As he got older, de Pachmann played up his idiosyncrasies even more, sometimes to the point of absurdity. In interviews, he routinely extolled his own virtues at the expense of his rivals—Leopold Godowsky, Moriz Rosenthal, and Ignacy Paderewski—and his supreme egotism often expressed itself on stage. De Pachmann’s biographer, Edward Blickstein, writes that “when he performed a lyric piece, a nocturne of a slow étude, and had begun to weave a spell with the beauty of his tone, he would glance over the audience like a sorcerer holding it in thrall, until the intensity had stretched the listeners’ nerves to a breaking point. Then, with a wave of his hand, he would whisper, ‘If only Chopin could have heard that!’”
Indeed, de Pachmann was most celebrated as an interpreter of Chopin. After a recital in the spring of 1884, the reviewer in The Times of London gushed that the pianist performed Chopin’s music “with a perfection of style and with a degree of poetic insight which can only spring from the most absolute harmony between composer and interpreter and which fully explains the unanimous opinion of those who have heard Chopin play his own music that M. de Pachmann’s manner resembles, in the minutest detail, that of the great master himself.” De Pachmann once explained that unlike other pianists, he had worked out certain fingerings so as not to produce “hard, brilliant effects,” but rather to convey “the singing, velvety delicacy that Chopin requires.” Tone color and a refined legato sound were paramount, so it all came down to touch, no matter if de Pachmann was playing a sequence of octaves or ornamenting a phrase with the merest of trills. It did, however, irk him that he was so singularly associated with this one composer, as if that meant he were somehow a lesser interpreter of, say, Schumann or Bach. Perhaps a feeling of defensiveness allowed him to admit on occasion that he preferred the music of Weber, even the transcriptions of Godowsky, to the nocturnes and mazurkas and preludes of Chopin, which he played with such aplomb.
De Pachmann’s recordings are rare but available today. The wretched sound quality may be off-putting, but if you can persist through the clouds of crackle and hiss, you can hear a bit of that old magic—the intimacy, the eloquent phrasing, the lyrical impulse triumphing over any desire to impress the listener with sheer technique. I still remember some of what I heard on the radio that night 30 years ago, including a Godowsky transcription and the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. The piece that beguiled me most, however, was Schumann’s “Prophet Bird,” from the set of nine miniatures called Forest Scenes, the most atmospheric and haunting thing I’d heard up to that point, a brief but wondrous essay—pale, foreboding, and elliptical. It was a voice from another time, another world, calling to me in the dark of night.
Balzac, Flaubert, Proust, and Henry James may have famously paid tribute to the Café Anglais, but if I could go back in time and provide an answer to Alice B. Toklas’s rhetorical question, it would be de Pachmann over a succulent roast any day.
Listen to Vladimir de Pachmann perform Chopin’s Barcarolle in F# major, a recording made in 1907:
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