Ours is an age that purports to dispense with canons, that mocks and jibes at and plays with them - anything is permitted but the emergence of some kind of canon based on a deep familiarity with an art's history, informed by deep taste and sustained by profound commitment - and the debate of others profoundly committed. The celebrated senior music critic of the N.Y. Times Harold C. Schonberg, with his 1964 book "The Great Pianists" gave Romantic piano playing the great boon of the beginning of an historical canon, from Cristofori onward. Schonberg, like any critic who extends himself past the noting of date and names, had his biases and blind-spots and hobby-horses, and perhaps no figure in his book is ridden quite so hard as the - in Schonberg's view - simianly clownlike, childish, near-incompetent Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933).
The present book, "Chopin's Prophet," co-created by music historian Edward Blickstein and the co-founder of the International Piano Archives, Gregor Benko (with whom I am friendly), is a full-length biography of de Pachmann's interwoven professional and personal lives. It is the first such (aside from an scandalous now-recalled book that cribbed Blickstein's work) ever, and it recovers the life of a figure so radically different, even in his very last and most eccentric years, to Schonberg's weak-willed and erratic foil to the power players - Busoni, Friedman, Rosenthal - that author clearly favored, that it is perhaps the most serious challenge to the structure of Schonberg's canon since 1964.
As documented by numerous - at times almost over-numerous - direct citations from contemporaneous accounts, de Pachmann emerges as a consummate craftsman of the piano in every regard, including his platform style - which was far less disconnected from his interpretive philosophy than was ever supposed. Here was a man who in his twenties had the discipline to retire for nearly a decade to seek his -own- perfect tone - who alone recognized the epochal advances in technique and harmony of Leopold Godowsky - who earned Godowsky's lasting appreciation and friendship - who had the means to bring Godowsky's work before the public and champion him as among the greatest masters - who had the strength to play with enormous power but chose to explore, advance, and perfect the neglected pianissimo side of the instrument - who, as he reached seventy, realized his technique no longer served him, and therefore completely restudied his repertory and retooled his physical responses - who lived in a flame of passion and beauty, denying himself nothing except mediocrity and repose.
This is a great act of justice: a restoration of a talent we can hear only in records made when its possessor was a very old man, and the preservation of a most unique personality, far removed from the pitiful portrait of Schonberg's pages. I read this book in three days - business prevented me from reading it in one sitting, else I'd have been immobile - and while it lasted I felt privileged to have bought and been able to read this restoration of an age where beauty was passionately pursued and created with life-and-death urgency. I am not the same person, quite, as I was before I read this book - and that's all I ask of any work of art.
After all this, it seems an unworthy carp to raise any objection - I must voice a few, minor though they be.
The many extended quotations of contemporaneous accounts at some points began to wear this reader. It is not that they were unimportant - on the contrary: like all such quotes, they brought the voices of that age to us, and we sorely need it - but there would have been more variety had the quotes been more often integrated into the running text, -described- a bit more often, with choice bits extracted. Such would task any authors' ingenuity after a while - how many ways are there to dress up quotes? - and that is so much, alas, of what we have left of this pianist. But still, a greater modulation of quotation (and a friendlier font size than the much-smaller-than-running-text one chosen for Kindle), would have increased pleasure.
The other is a matter of emphasis. There are some things much focused-on - particularly, and rightly, descriptions of de Pachmann's playing and platform mannerisms. A few things given more emphasis would have provided a better sense of the artist as a living man in the world. The authors boldly proclaim de Pachmann as almost epochally open in his later sexual preferences, but we're not quite sure how to know this. Of the men of whom we know (like Cesco), the tone seems almost coy. In Chapt. 26 we hear of de Pachmann's composing, but not whether any of his compositions survived - more broadly, it would be interesting to know more of the scattering of his documentary legacy and its previous preservation. As de Pachmann's life draws to a close, we suddenly cross several years to his death - and the usual things of what the surroundings might have been like at his death, his possible gravesite, a death certificate - are jogged past. The sense left is that a great mass of material had to be gone through and it was difficult at times to see one's way to the full human frame.
But these are irrelevant - and eminently capable of tuning-up in future editions - compared to this book's great virtue: a burning recapturing of an age that burned for beauty, through the person of a most unjustly-neglected artist-artisan-showman. Read this book, and let the magic of de Pachmann help you burn brighter.