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Vladimir de Pachmann

Vladimir de Pachmann: 27.07.1848 - 06.01.1933

Now - what has cows to do with this site ? Well - in fact nothing - if it weren't for Vladimir de Pachmann - who once said that the best way of keeping your fingers in shape as a pianist was to milk cows. So here he is - getting ready for his daily exercises - and thus passing this piece of good advice on to other pianists who has any cows at hand.
Pachmann was of the most enigmatic pianists ever - and often misunderstood because of the way he acted and played during his final years. According to Harold C. Schoenberg he was considered a buffoon and a no good piano player, unable to be taken seriously,  but this is far from the truth. Schoenberg judged him by his late recordings, but they do not give any true picture of the pianist Pachmann had once been. Pachmann himself loathed his recordings and told people to buy them and smash them.
He was born in Odessa, Russia in 1848 and such was his talent that he was sent to Vienna to study with Tausig's pupil Joseph Dachs and at the same time he took lessons in theory with Anton Bruckner. 

Carl Tausig: 1841-1871

Then came his debut and extensive tours - until suddenly he came to hear Liszt's greatest pupil ever, Carl Tausig playing in person. For Pachmann this came as a chock and realizing his own limitations he withdrew from the public for 6 years trying to perfect his art. Most of the time was spent in Italy including one year in Florence where he worked with Vera Kologrivoff Rubio (1816-1880) who had been Chopin's last assistant, and she imparted upon him the style that had been Chopin's own. Thus he was able to return to the concert platform in 1882 (Budapest) now hailed as a true virtuoso.

Vladimir de Pachmann at 
the height of his career

During his last years Pachmann was by some considered nothing but a clown - but what is wrong both to Pachmann and to great clowns. In fact I would rather call him the Groucho Marx of the piano and that is indeed something - but of course it had nothing to do with his career as a highly respected and successful piano virtuoso years before. But he sure was funny - and people would come to his concerts just to see and hear what he would do that night. There was no need to pity the old man - he was not a pathetic character whose actions were determined by some kind of dementia. He knew very well that he could no longer compete with the great and decided to make the most out of it. Any way he had always had something of a Victor Borge in him and in fact Borge borrowed some of his best tricks

Pachmann towards the end of his career

At one concert Pachmann deliberately ran into a struggle with the stool. He fiddled with the screws - raising it and then lowering it  until he gave up, rushed into the wings and came back with a large book. That didn't work either, so Pachmann tore out one single page and sat down - Ahh - now he was comfortable. (This trick was one that Victor Borge borrowed much later).

Once during a London recital Pachmann crouched over the keyboard trying to hide his hands while playing one of his great stunts: Chopin's Minute
Waltz arranged in thirds. And then he said to the audience. Vy do I do zis? - because I zee in ze owdience mein alte freund Moritz Rosenthal, and I doon't want him to copy my fingering. (Pachmann would invariably talk to his audience - in his typical gibberish - before and after playing or for that matter in the middle of the piece).

But Pachmann got his own laughs. At a concert he suddenly pulled out a sock and told the audience that it was one of Chopin's socks - knitted by George Sand. And then he hung it on the piano for the rest of the recital. Harold C. Schoenberg tells this story but he forgot to tell the rest of it: the next day a journalist visited the pianist and they had a hearty laughter together when Pachmann told him, that - of course - the sock was his own. Pachmann also once  told the audience that he was wearing Chopin's underwear!.

Pachmann made a lot of money on his concerts and he spent them on his other great passion: diamonds and other precious stones - and - like Liberace, many years later - he would bring them on to the stage and show them to the audience. But when he had shown them and the audience had acknowledged their beauty, he would tell them, that they would now forget all about them, for when he played they would experience colors far more beautiful than what they had just seen. 

Most of his colleagues got nervous ticks every time they saw Pachmann in the audience, because they never knew what might happen. At a recital where Busoni was playing, Pachmann rushed to the stage holding Busoni's arm up like a boxing referee declaring the winner - saying: Busoni grösster Bach-Spieler - Pachmann grösster Chopin-Spieler (Busoni is the greatest Bach-player - Pachmann the greatest Chopin-player)

The same with Godowsky - at a recital Pachmann rushed to the stage interrupting a piece by Chopin saying. No, no Leopold - you moost play it like zis afterwards telling the audience that he would not have given this advice to anyone, but Godowsky iz ze zecund greatest lifving pianist. In fact Pachmann claimed that Liszt after a recital had jumped to his feet and told the audience: this is the way Chopin played.

But - on the other hand - the same Godowsky
was once asked by a colleague whether he thought it would be worth going to a recital by the elderly Pachmann, and the great pianist answered, I'll tell you, if he plays for one minute the way he used to, it will be worthwhile being miserable for the rest of the recital.

Indeed during his prime Pachmann gained the respect not only of Godowsky  but also that of Liszt, and many other great pianists. At his best he had a wonderful singing tone, a completely natural ability to turn a phrase and a sound instinct for musical form (and with the years a strange technique - playing with his hands flat - as seen on the picture above). So while Schoenberg and others were laughing at him, the professionals and his colleagues remembered him as a great pianist - a miniaturist - like Joseffy - but a true virtuoso, being almost unsurpassed in the nocturnes of Chopin. 

But don't get me wrong. I still find Harold C. Schoenberg's The great Pianists a wonderful book, but it is wise to remember the words of the great Danish cello player of the wonderful Copenhagen String Quartet, Asger Lund Christiansen who once during an interview said: Critics tend to forget, that they are not part of musical life - they are just observers. Where Sir Thomas Beecham took a far more grim view. When he heard that a chair for music critics at some English university he proposed that it should be an electrical one.


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