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The Odessa-born pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933) left behind a number of recordings admirable for their tonal quality and charm (transferred to CD on Appian and Arbiter, among other labels). He also left an even larger number of disappointing efforts, made well past his prime. Pachmann’s posterity is further confused by his odd concertising habits, such as loudly talking to the audience while playing, as at least one rival, the Frenchman Francis Planté (1839-1934) also did. Only Pachmann, however, put one of his socks on the piano, gazed at it reverentially, and told an audience it was Chopin’s, knitted by George Sand. Meanwhile, the American critic James Gibbons Huneker dubbed Pachmann ‘Chopinzee’ in reference to his simian appearance. While such gags have attracted aficionados of the grotesque, they detract from any pianist’s real historical achievement.

Author Edward Blickstein studied piano at Juilliard and with George Halprin, a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni and Rafael Joseffy; his co-author Gregor Benko is co-founder of the International Piano Archives. They offer valuable material based on interviews with Pachmann’s friends and family, creating a rounded, vivid portrait. For example, Pachmann’s son Leonide remembers his father’s hands as ‘fleshy but quite firm and strong. He could move his fingers along the back of one’s own hand with such power that it really hurt’.

Blickstein was first introduced to Pachmann’s playing in 1950, when Halprin played the former’s Victor recording of the Chopin E minor Nocturne. While devoted to Pachmann, Blickstein is under no illusions about his drawbacks: ‘A charlatan with the manners of a mountebank and an artist with the message of a poet … his perverse behavior, at once whimsical, willful, and later, senile and even unhinged … probably the most eccentric of all the great pianists of history.’ There are also revealingly thoughtful quotes on occasions when Pachmann meant to be serious, as in a 1911 interview where he praised the 19th-century Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein for his ‘force and power, the big tone that one associates with [tenor Enrico] Caruso’, giving piano lovers today some idea of what an early recording of Rubinstein’s might have sounded like, had any been made.

Prey to stage fright, Pachmann apparently spoke to audiences to soothe his nerves and lighten the atmosphere of oft-frenzied adulation which accompanied him at recitals. Unreliable about the factual details of his own life, Pachmann was also an ‘irregular’ teacher, as Chopin’s Prophet asserts, although he could offer nuggets of wisdom to students, such as ‘never forget the dignity of the hands,’ uttered to one pupil whose fingers were flopping around unaesthetically. Even in his own day, Pachmann seemed weird: in 1896 The Étude reviewed one concert at which Pachmann lost his way repeatedly in Schumann’s Carnaval: ‘After trying three times in vain, Pachmann suddenly jumped to his feet and shouted, “Never mind, never mind; bravo, Pachmann, you played lovely anyhow!”’ Posterity may be inclined to offer the same consolation to this uniquely bizarre keyboard master.

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Piano International, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing