Vladimir de Pachmann


Arbiter’s two  publications of Pachmann’s recordings have improved sound and unique information on the artist:  Pachmann the Mythic Pianist & The Essential Pachmann.

The following essays mark earlier developments in our ongoing research on this master pianist.


A thorough history of the art of pianism and its finest interpreters has yet to be written. For many years the principal reference work on past artists and their precious recordings was Harold Schonberg’s The Great Pianists. Amidst the many artists he describes comes the strange appearance of Vladimir de Pachmann, who is portrayed as an eccentric, a clown who habitually spoke to his listeners, even while playing in concert. After researching Pachmann’s life, locating an important pupil of his, and above all, listening attentively to his records, one cannot but draw conclusions that are quite different than Schonberg’s parting comment: “If de Pachmann’s records are to be taken as a guide – it is impossible to take him seriously.”

The recordings on this disc are from the final years of his career, when the pianist was exhausted from world tours and about to succumb to a fatal cancer of the prostate. They are uneven, but not with the unevenness of Shura Cherkassky, who kept intact a noble conception of a work while subjecting it to meandering rhythms and obsessive fascination over details that succeeded in obscuring continuity. Pachmann’s playing never approached the exaggerations of Cherkassky, another diminutive Russian Jewish pianist noted for his color and refinement. Cherkassky’s reviewers never subjected him to the demonization accorded to Pachmann. Musicians such as Liszt, Godowsky and Friedman admired Pachmann’s art to a great extent. We ought, therefore, to re-examine his background and style.

Pachmann playing Chopin’s Valse in G flat op. 70, no. 1 and the Ecossaises, London c. 1915 

Pachmann was born in 1848 in Odessa. His talent demanded more than local teachers could offer so he moved to Vienna and had piano lessons from Joseph Dachs (a pupil of Tausig) and studied theory with Anton Bruckner. Pachmann followed the predictable path of completing his studies, making a debut and touring, until he happened to hear a recital given by Tausig. The magnificence and perfection of Tausig’s playing so startled Pachmann, who realized his inadequacy, that his shock led him to retire for six or seven years in order to perfect his art.

Until now little was known of what Pachmann did during his absence from the stage. In 1980 this writer met the Roman pianist Aldo Mantia, who became Pachmann’s student in Rome in the late 1920’s. Mantia’s mother Ida Bosisio was a pianist trained by the Roman pupil of Liszt, Sgambati. Bosisio was in close contact with the leading Italian musical figures of the late 19th century. When Mantia began his lessons with Pachmann, she informed her son about Pachmann’s extraordinary work during his sabbatical. Mantia independently substantiated both through his mother and a Florentine colleague of hers that in 1879 Pachmann had lived in Florence for a year. He did so to work with Mme. Vera Kologrivoff Rubio (1816-1880) who had been Chopin’s last assistant. The preparation and style she imparted to Pachmann enabled him to return to performing. In 1882 or thereabouts came Pachmann’s Budapest debut. According to Pachmann’s son Lionel (interviewed by the author in Paris, 1979 when he was 92 years old), Liszt was present at the concert. “As it was customary for men to wear top hats in those days at concerts, Liszt rose as the first interval began, removed his hat and spoke to the public: ‘This is the way Chopin played.’ He later gave my father private instruction, showing him what he recalled of Chopin’s playing.”

One would love to believe the latter anecdote, as Pachmann was a notorious exaggerator and could have easily invented the story, but he did spend time with Liszt in London on the composer’s final trip in 1886. The work with Mme. Rubio however, is of extreme importance as it gave his Chopin playing, at its very best and even in its weakest moments, a style and distinction that stands apart from his playing of other composers, as one can study from recordings (Schumann, Raff, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms). Pachmann must have hated recording for a machine; several Mazurka performances are marked with an atypical indifference. The height of his style is heard in the Nocturnes, which reveal a tone linked to the golden age of bel canto singing and having the continuity of a lyrical cantilena.

As recording companies desired short works, so Pachmann obliged and became known as a miniaturist. For many decades he programmed sonatas by Liszt, Weber and Beethoven, concertos by Chopin, and a wide repertoire. Mantia described his playing of Bach’s Italian Concerto as noble and chaste, especially when he performed it at home, for his public expected him to talk while playing and give free rein to his eccentricities. Pachmann was aware of this and commented that when he would play without talking for several evenings, the listeners became disappointed and stayed away, which displeased Pachmann who thrived on the public’s adulation. Once he held up to the audience an old sock and explained that George Sand had knit it for Chopin. He performed the concert with the sock dangling from the side of the open concert grand. Schonberg reports this in his book, speculating that Pachmann probably believed that he owned Chopin’s underwear. Schonberg omitted a detail from his book: the following day a famed critic came to see the socks and shared the heavy laughter of Pachmann, who roared: “The socks are mine!”

Pachmann’s playing epitomized the height of Chopin interpretation for many years. When the young Ignaz Friedman emerged on the concert scene, critics throughout Europe noted his arrival as “Pachmann’s successor”, despite Friedman’s silent demeanor on stage. The epic quality given to short works, the irresistibly beautiful tone, the power and drama Pachmann brought to Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase, and above all the metric regularity and accentuation in his Chopin are important links to an essential art form of the past century. We are lucky that a silent film survives of Pachmann making a piano roll recording. His flat hand position and rapid fingerwork reveal clues to a remarkable pianism. Listeners who will focus on the similarity in approach heard on these recordings will soon be able to separate the idiosyncrasies and mannerisms from the substance found in his late playing. Such a sincere, fine art is rarely heard and becomes ever the more unimaginable in our times.


Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933) was one of the earliest pianists to extensively record, beginning his documentation in 1907. We find the pianist here in his forty-ninth year playing at his musical height. His style was a florid 19th century practice linked to bel canto singing and, in Pachmann’s case rather unique for its heightened attention to color, which developed into his lifelong obsession. To his recitals, Pachmann often brought specimens from his extensive jewel collection. He would clasp diamonds and rubies in his hands, holding them upraised for his listeners to admire their sparkling radiance, only to dismisss them all: “You will forget them when you hear me play. Pachmann has even more color!” Pachmann endeared his public through his antics and speeches. It created an intimacy and rapport that helped lessen the nervousness he experienced. With age this trait increased and convinced later critics that he was more an entertainer than devotee of music. The conception heard on his earliest recordings fully demonstrate a broad view both of musical structure and a sense of narrative.

Pachmann had little interest in analyzing music; he simply played the music he adored and shrewdly cultivated his public personality. Artists such as Von Bulow were by comparison terribly precise and determined to be intellectually commanding, yet were often dry and emotionally uninvolved. Pachmann was attracted to the external as a way of conveying the emotions, which he skillfully expressed in the role of a caricature reembling the members of the Italian commedia dell’arte. Pachmann explained the meaning of the music he played by comparing the works to paintings, jewels, situations and sentiments, which underscored what he sought to communicate in a given work.

One rarely hears sentimentality in his playing. Pachmann’s florid conception is controlled and formally planned. His spoken and written language had a direct simplicity, as his schooling did not continue beyond gymnasium: later studies were solely of musical subjects, including theory lessons with Anton Bruckner.

In one lengthy article (in The Etude, October 1908), Pachmann expounded on “How to Play Chopin”. His comments are surprising in the way certain works are casually dismissed (13th Prelude) or in the case of the 2nd in A minor, a reference to Liszt. As he recorded several of these pieces one may keep in mind these observations while listening: “The Preludes are always popular both with players and with audiences, and this is not surprising, for with the exception of one or two weak ones, they are all of them exceptionally beautiful, interesting and characteristic. The first one of them is in a style that reminds one very forcibly of Schumann.

“The second is, I think, somewhat poor and I remember that Liszt himself once told me that he thought it a little weak. The third, though it has not a very high meaning, is a delightful little prelude. The melody is so smooth that it reminds me of oil floating on water, while a sort of zither accompaniment is running.

“The seventh is gay, the eighth an excercise, the ninth makes me think of returning after a funeral, and in the tenth Chopin seems to me to point at and imitate his master, Hummel.

“I do not like the thirteenth Prelude. The fourteenth is all fun from beginning to end- a regular volcano of gaiety. The fifteenth is my favorite. It is the longest of the preludes, and reminds me of an impromptu. The sixteenth is my great favorite! It is la plus grande tour de force in Chopin. It is the most difficult of all the preludes technically, possibly excepting the nineteenth. In this case presto is not enough. It should be played prestissimo, or, better still, vivacissimo. Number seventeen was the favorite of Mme. Schumann and [Anton] Rubinstein. It is very majestic, and in it Chopin introduces harmonies not previously found in other composers.

“In the twenty-second Prelude, Chopin created energetic modern octave play. It was the first prelude of its kind in the world. In the twenty-third Prelude pretty well all the editions indicate short legato passages. Chopin never played such passages. He sometimes introduced a long legato passage, but never short ones of a few notes only. In the twenty-fourth the amateur would do well to remember that the whole beauty of this prelude is generally spoilt by the left-hand notes being banged. The should be masque the whole time and should never be allowed to drown the right hand.”

Pachmann’s early training came from Dachs at the Vienna Conservatory. This momentous event, like all survivng accounts of his life, exists solely in Pachmann’s version; one will never know the truth, yet as his life was unusual to the extreme, anything is possible. Wishing to enter Dachs’ class, the eighteen year-old Pachmann presented himself and was told that admission was dependent on musicianship and pianistic ability. He was requested to return the following day and show his abilities. Pachmann sat through the professor’s lesson next day and was afterwards was asked to show the music he had brought. Pachmann replied that he had come without sheet music andwould play from memory. With annoyance, Dachs informed Pachmann that he had little time to waste, the Conservatory was no place for joking and that Pachmann should therefore play whatever he wished. After finishing Liszt’s paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto, Pachmann turned around only to find that Dachs had left the room. Dejected, Pachmann surmised that he had played poorly, but was surprised to see Dachs and the director Helmesberger return with expressions of joy on their faces. He now played for both and was accepted by Dachs.

Dachs’ first assignment was for Pachmann to prepare two Chopin Etudes. The next day Pachmann arrived, again without music. He announced that he would play any of the 24 Etudes in whichever key Dachs would choose. Dachs listened and embraced Pachmann, saying “I heard this by Chopin himself; you perhaps play better and he would have been envious of your perfect execution.”

A genuine accurate portrait of Pachmann comes from the recollections of his Roman pupil Aldo Mantia, interviewed by this writer in 1980.


Aldo Mantia and his wife Lucrezia

One of the first encounters with Pachmann came about when Mantia attended Pachmann’s Rome recital of March 27, 1926 given to benefit the summer music courses at the Villa d’Este, Tivoli. On a Baldwin piano, Pachmann played:

I. BACH: Italian Concerto MOZART: Fantasia in C minor

II. CHOPIN: Nocturne Op. 27 n.1 in C# minor Mazurka Op. 24 n.4 in B flat minor Prelude Op. 28 n.19 in E flat Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61 Scherzo Op. 54 in E

III. MENDELSSOHN: Prelude Op. 21 n.1 in E minor SCHUMANN: Novellette Op. 21 n.6 in A BRAHMS: Rhapsody Op. 79 n.1 in B minor

IV. many encores.

Mantia was amazed by the playing and soon began lessons. He asked Pachmann about his records and was told: “Whenever you find a disc of mine, buy it and break it! It is not even one-percent of De Pachmann!” Pachmann preferred his piano rolls, especially the Chopin Valses and Mazurkas: “When I make a mistake it is possible to take it out.” Pachmann owned many rare music editions. At a London auction he succesfully bid on a copy of Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum that had belonged to a Chopin pupil and contained Chopin’s fingering. There was also a similar edition of Bach’s fugues. Mantia and I traced their final destination: all of Pachmann’s musical effects and unissued test recordings were sold at Rome’s Porta Portese flea market to unknown buyers who will never find out that the ink markings are Chopin’s. Attempts to locate his unissued test pressings have been unsuccessful to now.

Whenever Pachmann visited Paris he would stop at the Pere Lachaise cemetary. He instructed Mantia, “Remember to bring flowers from Pachmann to Chopin, but not until fifteen years after my death. They must be carnations. Five carnations.” “Why?” asked Mantia. “I know” replied Pachmann. Mantia obeyed and had photos taken of his visit. Pachmann himself would approach the grave to ask forgiveness for the wrong notes he played. He spoke to Mantia in a mix of English, German and French with a rudimentary Italian used to describe food or make puns. Pachmann showed Mantia a medallion of Anton Rubinstein, whom he described as “a good second to me.” He assigned Rubinstein’s Etudes to Mantia. They heard Jose Vianna da Motta play all five of Beethoven’s concertos in Rome. Pachmann was impressed: “No one played them better than him.” Mantia met Pachmann’s musician friends at the villa on Via Masaua: Friedman, Leonid Kreutzer and Tetrazzini often visited. He would mention famous pianists but had no regard for anyone other than himself, with occassional praise to Godowsky for having expanded the piano’s technique.

As Pachmann was often on tour, he seemed more a guest in his own villa than its proprietor. When Pachmann was in Rome, Mantia was summoned by telephone for lessons. As he began playing, Pachmann would shout: “Orrible, ooh!” After advising him, Mantia played on, only to hear: “You must not imitate me!” Then on a third try: “Oh, that’s good. How do you do it?”

Aldo Mantia commenting while playing a home recording he made of Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 68, no.2 in 1958 based on Pachmann’s instructions (rec. by Allan Evans in Roma, 1981): 

When Mantia played this old recording he stood further from the recorder. Some of his comments are:

0:01 Opera sessant-otto numero due [opus 68 number two]

0:05  pedal and portato

0:16 That’s a rossignola [nightingale – how to take the trill]

0:22 the interpretation of this is very important, the difference you ___

0:33 without pedal

0:36 crescendo

0:45 put down the pedal

1:05 without abellimenti [embellishments] for a time [now?]

Pachmann playing Chopin’s Mazurka in C# minor, Op. 63, no.3 in 1928: note a similar use of pedal and secco non-legato: 

They worked on Weber’s A flat Sonata, a piece in Pachmann’s repertoire. To demonstrate the syncopated pedalling, Pachmann would crouch on the floor to manipulate the pedals with his hands as Mantia played. He told Mantia, “Only Liszt would pedal like me” in Beethoven’s Sonata op.57. He advised Mantia on Beethoven: “After op. 57 all are good but not for public. Only for musicians.” Pachmann played op. 27#2, op. 13, op.2#3, and what he described as even more accesibile to listeners- op. 2#2, both sonatas from op.49 and op. 14#1. Mantia described his Beethoven as “more Pachmann than Beethoven, but very poetic.” At this stage in life, Pachmann used a peculiar hand position, with the hands rather flat (whenever possible), close to the keys and slightly truned inward towards one another. It is noticable in a silent film of Pachmann making a piano roll. Pachmann presented several books on Chopin to Mantia, insisting that he would learn a great deal from them:

Andre Bideux- Chopin (ed. Alkan, 1928.) Leopold Binenthal. Documenti autografi. Camille Bourniquer. Chopin. Edouard Ganche. Sur la vie et sur l’oeuvre de Chopin. (1925). Z. Jachimecki. Chopin. (Paris, 1930). Frederick Niecks. Man and Musician. (Novello, 1890).

Listeners to these recordings will hear a contrast to the playing on the first volume. While the late records are uneven, the beauty of his sound is more present due to the microphone. But what is most striking is the varied styles of his Mendelssohn, Raff and Liszt playing, and their contrast with his Chopin style. We will always face the enigma of never knowing how much of this approach came from Chopin’s pupils and colleagues or whether Pachmann himself was totally responsible.


When approaching a musician active long ago as Pachmann, whose career began in the 1870’s and ended around 1929, we can easily be confused by recordings made sporadically in studios over a twenty year period. Fortunately, one extensive group of sessions for Columbia, made in December 1915 – January 1916, allow us to hear a substantial repertoire, and more important, examples of his non-Chopin repertoire. While Pachmann’s fame and notoriety rests with Chopin, our ears can better adjust to the unique qualities of his Chopin playing through first carefully listening to his Schumann, Raff, Liszt and Brahms.

The works by Liszt are familiar and enable one to follow his thought. Pachmann captures the listeners with sound: an unparalleled beauty of tone in the vocal cantilena style with each note, melodic or figurative, having an importance and urgency. His careful attention to projecting this lyricism, even in the accompaniment, with sudden melodic motifs and inner voices, contribute to the intensity of his expressive playing. Although Pachmann was occasionally misjudged as a miniaturist, the second half of the Liszt Polonaise and his Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto indicate a slow pacing which deliberately builds in intensity. Arches and climaxes are so artfully prepared and balanced that one is overwhelmed by the seeming spontaneity of the pianist’s vitality and emotional response to the music. When the Polonaise’s underlying rhythm is slightly changed, it is due to the emotional investigation Pachmann is subjecting it to. If his playing were not grounded on a musical understanding of the works being performed, the beauty and delight of his playing would only create grotesque results. It is a tribute to his art that all the structural considerations are hidden and at work in creating a piece drawing only attention to its expression. Pachmann’s careful, steady phrasing bring the work closer to Mendelssohn’s time: Pachmann’s distinct voice is a rare artefact from a remote era of music-making.

It is extremely fortunate that Pachmann included the Brahms work at his sessions, for otherwise one would have only imagined how he played Brahms, as his music appeared frequently on his programs, notably the G-minor Rhapsody, Op.79. This example allows us to observe how Pachmann approached Brahms’s style with a formal clarity and sincerity. His Schumann is also without affectation.

After one has become accustomed to his playing works by these composers we can turn to Chopin with a clearer idea of Pachmann’s aims. One of his finest recorded interpretations is of the Etude in F, Op. 25, no.3. Pachmann enjoys Chopin’s ambiguous metric accentuation and once he has established a forward-moving rhythmic momentum, seeks to have the piece expand throughout the highest and lowest registers, increasing the sonoric intensity to the maximum, pedaling to the point of a blur but not losing the underlying clarity. We may also compare two versions from the sessions with his playing of the D-flat Nocturne, again re-recorded (on Volume 1) a decade later. The underlying style, once established, is then altered, explored most subjectively to nuances of rubato and agogics as the pianist reacts to the changes in the score – increased ornamentation, expanding of the registers and use of double notes in the theme. Notice also how he varies the accents and projects the swing-rhythms in the Mazurkas and adopts a fioritura for the passage works based on the bel-canto singing of his century.

One could comment further on the playing heard at these London sessions but we ought to defer to Pachmann’s writings and ideas. As much as we wish to know what Pachmann thought about music, we must note his lifelong concern for the better realization of certain musical truths that he could not adequately express in words. The following excerpts come from an interview given around 1911 in which he mixed his English, French, German, and Italian. It reveals Pachmann’s lifelong passion for the music he performed.

Seeking Originality by Vladimir de Pachmann

Originality in pianoforte playing, what does it really mean?

Nothing more than the interpretation of one’s real self instead of the artificial self which traditions, mistaken advisors and our own natural sense of mimicry impose on us. Seek for originality and it is gone like a gossamer shining in the morning grass. Originality is in one’s self. It is the true voice of the heart. I would enjoin students to listen to their own inner voices. I do not desire to deprecate teachers, but I think that many teachers are in error when they fail to encourage their pupils to form their own opinions.

I have always sought the individual in myself. When I have found him I play at my best. I try to do everything in my own individual way. I work for months to invent, contrive or design new fingerings – not so much for simplicity, but to enable me to manipulate the keys so that I may express the musical thought as it seems to me it ought to be expressed. See my hand, my fingers – the flesh as soft as that of a child, yet covering muscles of steel. They are thus because I have worked from childhood to make them thus.

Originality in interpretation is of course no more important than originality in creation. See how the composers who have been the most original have been the ones who have laid the surest foundation for permanent fame. Here again true originality has been merely the highest form of self-expression. Non e vero? When the composer has sought originality and contrived to get it by purposely taking out-of-the-way methods, what has he produced? Nothing but a horrible sham – a structure of cards which is destroyed by the next wind of fashion.

Other composers write for all time. They are original because they listen to the little inner voice, the true source of originality. It is the same in architecture. Styles in architecture are evolved, not created, and whenever the architect has strived for bizarre effects he builds for one decade only. The architects who build for all time are different and yet how unlike, how individual, how original is the work of one great architect from that of another.

The most original of all composers, at least as they appear to me, is Johann Sebastian Bach. Perhaps this is because he is the most sincere. Next I should class Beethoven, that great mountain peak to whose heights so few ever soar. Then would come in order Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, Weber, and Mendelssohn. Schumann more original than Chopin? Yes, at least so it seems to me. That is, there is something more distinctive, something more indicative of a great individuality peaking a new language.

Compare these men with composers of the order of Abt, Steibelt, Thalberg, and Donizetti, and you will see at once what I mean about originality being the basis of permanent art. For over twenty years my great fondness for mineralogy and for gems led me to neglect in a measure the development of the higher works of these composers, but I have realized my error and have been working enormously for years to attain the technic which their works demand. Some years ago I felt that technical development must cease at a certain age. This is all idiocy. I feel that I have now many times the technic I have ever had before and I have acquired it all in recent years.

Why has Godowsky – Ach! Godowsky, der ist wirklich ein grosser Talent – how has he attained his wonderful rank? Because he has worked out certain contrapuntal and technical problems which place him in a class all by himself. I consider him the greatest master of the mysteries of counterpoint since the heyday of classical polyphony. Why does Busoni produce inimitable results at the keyboard? Simply because he was not satisfied to remain content with the knowledge he had obtained from others. This then is my life secret – work, unending work. I have no other secrets. I have developed myself along the lines revealed to me by my inner voice. I have studied myself as well as my art. I have learned to study mankind through the sciences and through the great literary treasures, you see; I speak many languages fluently, I have stepped apace with the crowd, I have drunk the bitter and the sweet from the chalices of life, but remember, I have never stopped, and today I am just as keenly interested in my progress as I was many years ago as a youth. The new repertoire of the works of Liszt and Brahms and other composers demand a different technic, a bigger technic. What exquisite joy it was to work for it.

© Allan Evans 1996, 1997

* These three essays appeared as liner notes on the Dante label in the 1990s.