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Rudolf Serkin: A Life Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber. (Oxford University Press, New York, 2003, £20. ISBN 0-19-513046-4. pp. xiv + 344: + CD.)

Lost in the Stars: The Forgotten Musical Life of Alexander Siloti Charles F. Barber. (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md, 2002, $49.95. ISBN 0-8108-4108-8.pp. xix + 429: + CD.)

Vladimir de Pachmann: A Piano Virtuoso's Life and Art Mark Mitchell. pp.231. (Indiana University Press, Bloomington , 2002, £26.95. ISBN 0-253-34169-8.)

First published in Music and Letters, August 2004

Accounts of the lives of performing musicians are not necessarily engrossing' say Stephen Lehmann & Marion Faber, throwing down their gauntlet. And, quoting their subject, Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) 'Why should anyone write about me? - - all I did was practice, practice, practice'. A great pianist, no question, but his biography is not one that I would have read apart from this commission.

Serkin's LPs, cassette tapes and CDs are still in circulation and valued for their sobriety and intellectual strength. At home we continue to listen to his recordings, and he is an artist featured regularly on radio, the family name also before us with his son Peter's career. By contrast, Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) never recorded, and is only mentioned occasionally for his arrangements and published editions. Vladimir de Pachmann (1852-1933) is known now more for his eccentricities than for his playing in the early days of recording.

It can prove serendipitous to be pointed in unwonted directions, according well with my exploratory philosophy for Musical Pointers http://www.musicalpointers.co.uk/ . A fascinating musico-social history emerges from following the vicissitudes of these three distinctive personalities whose lives spanned collectively a century and a half, by political necessity and by choice wanderers around the globe.


Because this is a review of three books, not of three pianists, I prefer to consider them in reverse chronological order, for reasons which will become apparent. The writers of these substantial books are all diligent collectors of facts; those about Rudolf Serkin are comprehensive (he retained every trivial scrap of paper) and will be a valuable source for future generations. But Serkin's two biographers were hampered by a subject who avoided interviewers and resisted biographers.

In their first hundred pages or so, Lehmann & Faber take us through Serkin's early years in Eger (Bohemia) and Vienna, his study with Schoenberg and immersion in contemporary music (1918-20) and the later rift, leading to his moving on to Berlin and forming the enduring 'venerable firm of Busch and Serkin', recalling his devotion to his senior partner and their unique collaboration; their recordings together are still venerated.

In 1938 Serkin immigrates to Switzerland , and the following year moves to USA , where he becomes 'an American pianist', and was closely involved in creating the Leventritt Competition.

We learn that Rudolf Serkin needed to practise harder and longer than many pianists and an element of struggle, technical and against pervasive nervousness, communicated itself in his performances. There are substantial individual accounts of his performing, teaching and forty years association with Marlboro, 'a gathering of professional musicians for the purpose of studying chamber music', which had been relatively unappreciated in America before the 1950s.

The programmes of fifty years of Carnegie Hall recitals are followed by forty pages of discography, listing Serkin's recordings - official and other - on 78s, LPs and CD, but not the many preserved on 45s, tapes, cassettes, laser discs and video-cassettes. There is no evaluation here of those recorded performances, or of the numerous re-recordings of Serkin's core repertoire - scope for many theses to come on this famous pianist who is so thoroughly documented in sound.

Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber have, however, a flat style of joint writing which does not catch wing to penetrate the inner world of this private man. Nor do his friends and colleagues, whose edited contributions and tributes form a large part of the book, come through as vital personalities.

Whilst reading this Lehmann/Faber book it was a relief to turn to Serkin LPs and cassettes in our collection; Beethoven concertos and, from less central repertoire, Schumann's Introduction and Allegro Appassionato and Strauss's Burlesque. Lastly, I listened with considerable pleasure to the CD insert with the book, unknown live recordings of Bach, Mendelssohn & Chopin's Op 25 Etudes, selected from recitals at the Library of Congress; this brings Serkin vividly present, in a way that the book may not do for those who had not known him.


Lost in the Stars
is an admirable attempt to recover from the past a shadowy figure, one whose historical importance in the musical life of Russia and later America must not be underestimated. Accounts of Alexander Siloti attest that as a pianist he was closer to a Serkin, and poles away from the personality cult cultivated and enjoyed by his flamboyant contemporary de Pachmann.

The procession of great names in this biography owes nothing to mere name-dropping; Siloti became a central figure in St Petersburg until the October Revolution. His activities are documented in fullest detail, with rounded pictures of the famous personalities encountered along the way. He studied with Liszt, who remained his champion, and developed an interest in conducting. He was close to Tchaikovsky, premiered the First Piano Concerto and was entrusted with editing it for publication, with his own alterations which the composer welcomed; more controversially, he revised the Second Piano Concerto in an edition which Gilels always played.

We learn about Siloti's incompatibility with the Moscow Conservatoire's director Safonov, his departure in 1891 and how next year he began to establish his European and American reputation as a virtuoso pianist, ' - - the greatest pianist who could have made records but didn't - - ' (Richard Taruskin). Siloti introduced to USA his young cousin Sergei Rachmaninoff's C# minor Prelude; 'two reputations were born'. He was crucial in making Rachmaninoff's career possible, saving his life by paying for medical treatment and afterwards for composition tuition. Later Siloti supported him during the crisis with the Second Piano Concerto, which was only able to be completed after treatment by a hypnotherapist. Together, they premiered Rachmaninoff's Second Suite for two pianos.

Back in St Petersburg, Siloti dominated an era as conductor and pianist and as impresario of the Siloti Concerts 1903-1917, in which he introduced Casals, and composers including Stravinsky (crucial for his early success), Prokofiev, Scriabin and Elgar (Enigma Variations, 1904), Schoenberg (Pelleas und Melisande, 1912).

All was disrupted by the October Revolution, Siloti was jailed briefly, his apartment ransacked, most of his belongings and music library never recovered - some of his important music manuscripts survived because his daughter spotted them being used to wrap meat and bought the butcher's entire stock of wrapping paper! The privations of that period are graphically described.

In 1919 Siloti was briefly rehabilitated by the Soviet regime, taught piano at the Petrograd Conservatory, opined that the 13 -year-old Shostakovich had 'no musical abilities' (Glazounov came to his rescue) and was helped by an extraordinary British spy to flee to Finland and the West with his family, later on to Berlin, Antwerp, Paris. In 1920 the Silotis established a home in London . Reviews of his appearances at Wigmore Hall there emphasised his apparent effortlessness, controlled rhythm and tonal gradations, and 'deeply musical restraint'.

Tendonitis in Siloti's right hand, only relieved by rest and restraint, led to a lifelong aversion to excessive practising. We learn that he was a superb player, but his platform manner was studiedly economical, undemonstrative and free of eccentricities; too much so for the American public in later life.

Charles Barber analyses why Siloti's career was eclipsed by 'lesser pianists and less-daring conductors' and, until this book, had become virtually forgotten. Marketing favoured 'the vastly entertaining foolishness of Vladimir de Pachmann' and the growing importance of recording. Siloti's post-1917 career never gained lasting momentum - his modest demeanour, uncompromising stance and reluctance to record at a time when 'a great artist could be in 100,000 homes at once' all told against him, despite some perceptive reviews which are quoted at length.

From 1922 until his death in 1945 Siloti's home base was New York , where he taught at the Julliard Graduate School of Music, and enjoyed critical acclaim, documented by Barber in fullest detail, especially during three Golden Years from 1929 until 1931, when he gave his last public recital at Carnegie Hall. His come-back ultimately collapsed with a failure of complete public acceptance because Siloti's brand of music making disregarded the need for an 'incendiary response from every audience on every occasion' - America 's prerequisite for audience-building.

Siloti's teaching methods are described by his pupils, notably his emphasis on restraint and avoidance of 'body rhetoric'. He came so to resemble Liszt physically that there were even legends around about his fathering; but that notion had been scotched long before by Liszt himself, who had done the necessary calculations of time and place and concluded 'My dear Alexander, to my great regret it is not possible'!

The book ends with 70 pages of appendices, including concert programmes, lists of publishers and editions, a full bibliography and a necessarily limited discography (piano rolls and recordings by other artists), preceded by an examination in detail of one of his Bach transcriptions, which are still sometimes played.

However, by way of an indication of Siloti's near total eclipse, none of those was included by today's Bach specialist Angela Hewitt in her recent performances and recording of Bach transcriptions, and the ill-fated CD of fourteen of them, inserted into the cover of Barber's book, is less than persuasive - the pianist James Barbagallo died just before the Naxos recording could be completed, so it will not be released commercially.

Charles Barber marshals his information (two full pages of acknowledgments denote the magnitude of the task) with lucidity and a writing style that carries you forward, satisfying for the general reader equally as for academics.

The book is a pleasure to handle, and readers are supplied with convenient chapter-by-chapter footnotes, and the key personages are brought before us in a block of some thirty evocative photos and illustrations, including splendid cartoons of Casals with Siloti, and of Liszt presenting to piano-maker Julius Blüthner on a plate his student Alexander Siloti.


Close acquaintance with Vladimir de Pachmann' s life proved a most rewarding and enjoyable experience, right from the first sentence of Mark Mitchell's engrossing book. He introduces Pachmann by quoting 'a young journalist' (who was to become the great novelist Willa Cather) being told before a concert to expect to 'fall under the enchantment of the man - a mystic cult - but listen!'

That encapsulates the contradictions of this famously eccentric pianist; Mitchell regales us with familiar and unfamiliar anecdotes about his outrageous behaviour, but never loses sight of the quality of the musician behind the mask. That is vouched for in many lengthy and thoughtful accounts of Pachmann's performances by the best critics of the period, some of them as eloquent as Cather; he was ranked among the finest during his long career and was its best-known Chopin specialist.

Pachmann anticipated what has become commonplace nowadays, but was anathema when I was young - for recitalists to talk to their audiences. He annotates the music as he plays, teases and clowns, amuses his audiences and annoys the more straight-laced, congratulates himself, 'who will play like that when I am gone?', and doing so his reputation grew, so that he filled the largest venues all over the world, routinely selling out London's Royal Albert Hall. Chopin was central to his wide repertoire, but not the fashionably effete, sickly and emasculated composer; he incorporated 'the compelling role of tension, occasionally even sadism' in Chopin's music.

Born in Odessa 1848, Pachmann 'invented himself' - 'My father is a Rabbi, my mother a Turkey , and I am a pianist'. In childhood he practised long and assiduously; assigned two Bach fugues assigned for his first lessons in Vienna , he returned to showed that he could play all 48 by memory, and transposed into any key - and at the next lesson with all 24 Chopin Etudes memorized!

Any key and every country! We are taken with Pachmann to Paris , London 1882 as 'Chopin apostle but not enough of a man for Beethoven'; back there 1883 'he executes as he feels' and America 1990; touring back and forth between Europe and USA thereafter, his first recital at the Royal Albert Hall in 1903. Pachmann's playing, which divided opinion, came to be 'representative of its historical moment - - defined by fin-de-siecle literature and the 1897 Secessionist exhibition in Vienna ', as did many aspects of his biography (and his art) correspond to the preoccupations of those writers and artists.

Mitchell places his narrative in the social context of his varying surroundings, deals sensitively with his difficult relationship with his pianist wife, their foundering marriage, his homosexual tendency and, crucially, his gullibility. That left him in thrall to an exploitative chancer Cesco Pallottelli, an Italian waiter (perhaps) who became his 'secretary', later manager, and gradually took over his life and fortune, in a menage-a-trois after Pallottelli married. Mitchell draws his references widely, and likens that set-up to E. M. Forster's with Bob and Mary Buckingham.

Immensely rich from his concertizing, Pachmann had a special indulgence; he could not resist seeking out and purchasing the most precious jewels, amassing a fabulous collection worth millions of dollars which he named by composers and compositions. 'My love for gems is ideal - - I have named them, Bach my best diamond, Brahms a dusky emerald.' He looked after them recklessly, carrying his priceless stones loose in his pockets. In his final illness with prostate cancer they 'disappeared' into the hands of Cesco Pallottelli &/or a relative whom he engaged to nurse Pachmann. When he died in 1933, Vladimir de Pachmann had virtually no personal possessions.

In later life, around seventy, playing had become difficult for Pachmann, with tired and stiff muscles, and he devoted himself to a 'new method' of playing he invented which developed into an obsession. The quirks of his 'obsessive, paranoid and self-dramatizing' character increased beyond eccentricity to frank mental illness, with bizarre compulsions which showed up in concerts and alienated his audiences; latterly 'he gave abundantly of all that was most intolerable in him and sparingly of that which seduced and charmed'.

On every page there is so much to enjoy and amaze that one can only quote at near random; and, as is the case in the Siloti biography, Mark Mitchell's selection of Pachmann illustrations brings another vivid dimension to reading about this larger than life character.

Of the critics cited by Mitchell extensively, Olin Downes of the New York Times strikes a perceptive balance. At Carnegie Hall in 1924 'it is not to be forgotten that underneath his fooling - - lies a profound knowledge of his art that often constitutes revelation in a single phrase - he gives performances of a unique poetry and beauty which will die with him'.

Not quite so, because Pachmann was an enthusiast for the early gramophone and there is a substantial discography by Allan Evans. Arbiter Records intends to issue at least one recording of every work that Pachmann committed to disc. Arbiter 129 confirms Pachmann's 'originality, technical command, tonal imagination, style sense and sinuous legato' (Robert Dumm - Piano Journal).

If you listen to passages from Chopin's Valse Op 64/2 and four of the Nocturnes on Amazon.co.uk, you will find that your ears are quickly engaged by the lyrical beauties behind the surface noise of the 1907-1927 recordings , and the brief extracts on line will determine you to acquire the Arbiter CD Pachmann, the Mythic Pianist as a companion to Mark Mitchell's admirable biography.


The fascination of defying the seeming limitations of hammers striking strings, diametrically opposite to the essence of the human voice, continues to exercise the ingenuity of piano makers and players. Pianists working from the same scores are as infinitely various in their interpretations as are human personalities. Received tradition, and quests for individual expression and recognition, will long continue to counterpoint a debate that, in these thought provoking biographies, takes us back to the heyday of the grand piano and the beginnings of its recorded history.

Looking forward to the mid-2000s, will Steinway still continue to dominate how we listen to keyboard music of the last three centuries in concert, recordings and on radio? Andras Schiff recently challenged audiences to his Chopin and his Idols recitals (each programme given twice to full houses!) by deploring the commonly held assumption, that " pianos should always be black and made by Steinway - - Wigmore Hall used to be called the Bechstein Hall - when did we last hear a Bechstein, Bösendorfer or Ibach here?" With a beautiful, rich brown Pleyel of 1860 on the platform to play Chopin, and his own specially commissioned Steinway/Fabbrini for Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart, Schiff made us think.

Some individualistic interpreters may not want the focus of attention to be distracted from themselves and shared with unfamiliar instruments? However, they may be reassured, for example, by the very different playing of Schubert on fortepianos by Staier, Badura-Skoda, Bilson and Tverskaya. For how much longer will some BBC presenters still feel a need to introduce fortepiano recordings with patronising jokes?

If a comparable trio of biographies of more recent and contemporary pianists comes to be written, the contentious issues of historical awareness will be inescapable, including knowledge of the sounds earlier composers knew. Today's giants of the keyboard and those of the coming generation need to address the interplay between performer and instrument, acoustic situations for live and recorded performing, and the rapidly changing cultural contexts; all those considerations are becoming increasingly important, and more so than they interested Pachmann, Siloti or Serkin.



© Peter Grahame Woolf