In this series of posts I will be arguing the case for an approach to Chopin that plays an important role in many early recordings but rapidly becomes ironed-out as the twentieth-century progresses – asynchrony, defined below:

  • Asynchrony in piano playing at the end of the nineteenth century consisted of much more than just a few sentimental sprinklings of arpeggiated chords.  It involved a number of interrelated techniques used with great artistic nuance by the best pianists to manipulate timing, emphasis, sonority and musical feel.

  • Asynchrony can be defined as not quite playing notes simultaneously that are written as if they should normally be played at the same time in the score (e.g. notes within a chord, or a left hand bass note and right hand melody note both written on the same beat).

  • Asynchrony is not necessarily a late Romantic distortion imposed on earlier piano music by overly-imaginative virtuosi, as some have wanted to believe. The recorded evidence points strongly to a tradition that gets more pronounced, not less so, as we travel back in time with earlier performer birthdates into Chopin’s era.

  • The use of asynchrony is corroborated by a number of descriptions of Chopin’s playing in which it was attested his hands were not always synchronised, and that this was a deliberate facet of his rubato. These are reasonably well known and yet…

  • Very few pianists today employ asynchrony in Chopin as vividly (if at all) as pianists born between 1830 and the early 1870s (Theodor Leschetizky, Louis Diémer, Vladimir de Pachmann, Ignaz Paderewski, Aleksander Michałowski, Moriz Rosenthal, Carl Friedberg, Harold Bauer). Later generations such as Cortot, Koczalski, Moiseiwitsch, Horszowski, Novaes, Friedman and Horowitz employ it significantly at times too, although some pianists born in the later decades of the nineteenth century use less asynchrony than the earlier generations (Hofmann, Artur Rubinstein), and those after 1900 very little at all.  There are now a handful of contemporary players who are making conscious and thoughtful use of this type of touch.

  • Some kinds of asynchrony were too subtle or intricate for composers to write meaningfully into their scores for the most part and were, like rubato (or Baroque ornamentation) therefore left to the discretion and artistic skill of the performer.

  • It follows that different performers (and different recordings) can create quite different effects in the same phrase, section or piece, and the performer’s sense of how to realise asynchrony becomes part of their personal language (again, like rubato), distinguishing their interpretations from those of others.

  • In spite of these differences there are remarkable similarities and affinities of approach in recordings by different pianists of the same works by Chopin, not hinted at in the score (see the discussion of individual works in the case studies below).

  • A curious fact remains that asynchrony is even incorporated in many places in Chopin’s music by players who in writing expressed opposition to the technique (e.g. Ferruccio Busoni, Mark Hambourg, Raoul Pugno and Josef Hofmann), their reservations perhaps being due to excesses or abuses of the technique (or mere sloppiness) in amateur circles.

  • I am not going to be so tedious as to claim all pianists should immediately start peppering their Chopin with impromptu asynchrony in order to become authentic, at least without taking time out to do a lot of listening. If the best evidence is the recordings themselves, however, then pianists could discover a wider palette with which to express some areas of this repertoire that would at least recreate elements of Chopin ‘as heard’ if not definitively as he was heard to play himself.  Doing so might arguably bring us closer to the Chopin style of rubato.  

    One purpose of this project is to attempt to reveal the sound of asynchrony on modern pianos, in part to demonstrate the techniques in better quality recorded sound, in part in order to learn how to incorporate them myself by emulation and experiment with their aesthetic impact.

Case Study 1 –  Chopin’s B minor Prelude Op.28 No.6: 19th-century pianists compared

Pachmann’s recording of the B minor Prelude raises a huge number of questions about the asynchrony phenomenon, the extent of which it vividly reveals.  After sketching some background information on Pachmann, I scrutinise the asynchrony in his recording, representing it in score form and reproducing it on a modern piano. I then go on to demonstrate parallels with recordings by Rosenthal, Koczalski, Hambourg and Cortot (collectively born between 1848 and 1885).  I include a short discussion of theories put forward to account for the acoustical and expressive purposes of asynchrony that might explain how and why the technique features so prominently in this Prelude, and provide a provisional conclusion pending future investigations into other works.

Vladimir de Pachmann’s birthdate (1848) overlaps with the final year of Chopin’s life and although this obviously cannot count for any direct influence, the sense of a very distant and at times unfamiliar form of pianism may surprise the otherwise seasoned Chopin listener who delves into Pachmann’s recorded legacy.  Pachmann’s decidedly eccentric stage antics have proved something of a distraction from serious appraisals of his playing, yet his artistry has been re-evaluated in recent years, and his complete recordings reissued with restored sound.  His reputation as the Chopin player and specialist of the late nineteenth century was built on a lifetime of accumulated study and experience, first with Joseph Dachs at the Vienna Conservatory, and then through witnessing the playing of Tausig, Anton Rubinstein and, in particular, Liszt.  No less a pianist than Moriz Rosenthal, whose recording of the B minor Prelude is compared with Pachmann’s later in this article, visited Pachmann on one occasion with the purpose of gaining insight into his Mazurka playing 1.  What is more, he was widely respected as a Chopin interpreter by other great players of Chopin such as Godowsky, Ignaz Friedman and even Liszt himself.  When he heard Liszt he was so taken aback that he ceased playing for two days 2

It is perhaps worth remarking that a rediscovered piano roll recording of the Liszt Sonata by Arthur Friedheim, arguably one of Liszt’s closest students, has revealed the likely importance of asynchrony – both arpeggiation and the asynchrony between hands – in Liszt’s own style (Carter and Adler, 24-28) and this is also known from several other recordings of Liszt’s music by his students.  Of course, this says nothing of Chopin’s style although of course Liszt was known to be a very good mimic of that, and it is likely to have some elements in common.    

Based on interviews that Allan Evans conducted with Roman piano teacher, Aldo Mantia, who claimed to be Pachmann’s student in the late 1920s, Evans has also asserted that Pachmann sought advice from one of Chopin’s teaching assistants, Vera Rubio, in 1879, facilitated by his staying a year in Florence.  This was during Pachmann’s break from the stage in which appears to have done nothing but practice for a period of about six years, and during which there is little evidence of his whereabouts.  The story of this encounter with Rubio is contested strongly by Blickstein and Benko, due to the lack of any other corroborating evidence, which they would have expected to unearth during their own course of research (Blickstein, 409-410). 3 

Blickstein and Benko lament that Pachmann was not served well by recordings, though I find their tone rather defensive in the light of what I have heard.  His recordings were made between 1907 when he was fifty-nine and 1927 when he was seventy-nine.  ‘Everyone who had heard Pachmann in his prime told the author without exception that his records did not capture his great playing.’ (Blickstein and Benko, 390). However, they also acknowledge some definite gems, and a good impression of his playing can be gained from two CDs issued by the Arbiter record label, with wonderfully restored sound. There is also an interesting in-depth article on Pachmann by Allan Evans on the Arbiter website http://arbiterrecords.org/music-resource-center/vladimir-de-pachmann/ .  In addition, Marston Records have issued Pachmann’s complete disc recordings, and their website also gives free access to extensive liner notes that reproduce some of Blickstein and Benko’s text. https://www.marstonrecords.com/products/depachmann

Pachmann’s Recording

Provided in Ex 1.0 below is an annotated score showing how Vladimir de Pachmann used asynchrony between the hands for his recording of 1927 (Victor 1459).  Similar examples throughout this article allow the reader to compare these features with those of other pianists. The fine detail of Pachmann’s touch and pedalling is audible but it is the asynchrony that is perhaps most striking to a modern listener.

Example 1.0 Asynchrony in Pachmann’s Recording (1927)

Listening to this recording (or my recording, which reproduces the general effect on a modern piano – see below), and consulting Ex. 1.0, reveals the surprising frequency of notes in the left-hand melody that do not coincide precisely with the right-hand accompaniment.  Altogether there are about 24 instances, in addition to which arpeggiations are added to the chord at the beginning of bar 6 and in the middle of bar 8 – neither being indicated in the score.  The diagonal lines show whether the left-hand notes are early or late in relation to the right hand, and the placement of note-heads in the score have been adjusted slightly to reflect the nature of the displacement.  From this it can be seen that of these, the majority of displaced notes in the left hand are played early relative to the right hand (19 in total) whereas 4 notes are played a little later than the right hand.  The degree of displacement has not been quantified exactly, but some displacements are certainly more obvious than others due to the time lag between the hands (the downbeats of bar 1 and 4 being particularly striking, whilst the downbeat of bar 3 is less noticeable).  Moreover, in bar 7 the displacement of the quaver A# in the left-hand actually produces a different rhythm to that of the original score.  The question of whether a note is early or late relative to the prevailing pulse is and interesting one, but again such information is not encapsulated in the diagram, and to an extent it is hard to be objectively precise about such a judgement.

I recorded the piece myself on my Weber 150 piano, copying Pachmann’s playing as far as possible.  I used further annotations in my own score to reproduce other details of the original recording, including elements of pedalling, touch and rubato.  The aim of this recording is to show (and feel) the effect of the hand displacements in more familiar modern sound, although as this is done in my home studio there is scope for greater opulence in the recording quality and in the quality of the instrument itself.  Most of the recording was from a take in which I played simultaneously along with Pachmann’s recording in order to maximise the correspondence in timing between his recording and my own. 

Pachmann’s 1927 recording of Chopin’s B minor Prelude reconstructed on a modern baby grand by Charles Tebbs.

Many pianists new to this style may be surprised or indeed perhaps irritated by the effect of this kind of constant asynchrony, and wonder what effect Pachmann was trying to achieve.  However, note that this sort of thing was quite normal in his playing.  Greater familiarity with recordings and pianists of this period will be required until the aesthetic of the effect can truly be appreciated, and its possible relation to Chopin’s style taken seriously.  For those who are open minded it is worth listening a number of times and considering the extent to which the asynchrony allows Pachmann to play the regular quaver ostinato fairly steadily, whilst the left hand melody pursues its own individual rubato.  This is of great significance when considered alongside reports of Chopin’s own playing.  Here are two such reports, though there are several more:

‘…the hand responsible for the accompaniment would keep strict time, while the other hand, singing the melody, would free the essence of the musical thought from all rhythmic fetters, either by lingering hesitantly or by eagerly anticipating the movement with a certain impatient vehemence akin to passionate speech.’ (Mikuli, 3)

‘Chopin, as Mme Camille Dubouis explains so well, often required simultaneously that the left hand, playing the accompaniment, should maintain strict time, while the melodic line should enjoy freedom of expression with fluctuations of speed.  This is quite feasible: you can be early, you can be late, the two hands are not in phase; then you make a compensation which re-establishes the ensemble.’ (Mathias, 5).

It may be objected by some who dislike the sound of this recording that Pachmann’s approach is a freak occurrence and that no other pianists indulge in this sort of thing, at least not to the same degree.  However, now let us turn to other pianists that recorded the piece, two of whom were taught by Mikuli, Chopin’s assistant, whom I have just quoted, and both of whom do indeed also exhibit similar kinds of asynchrony at similar points in this work. However, the effect is embedded within their own phrasing and style which produces quite distinctive and different renditions, in spite of similarities.

Rosenthal

There are a number of recordings made by Moriz Rosenthal (see Mitchell and Evans, 151) but for this purpose I have selected one recorded in 1935 (Victor 14300) when the pianist was sixty-three.  As a student of both Mikuli first, and later Liszt, Rosenthal might be expected to demonstrate an affinity with Pachmann in his recording of the piece, and indeed it does exhibit a similar number of points of asynchrony – a total of 22 obvious displacements of the hands – and at similar places in the phrases.  Ex. 1.1 shows his use of asynchrony using red lines, overlaying the earlier example of Pachmann.  (It has not been possible to represent some instances with absolute consistency using the noteheads so, for example, where the red line in the middle of bar 3 crosses in the opposite direction to the black line, it shows the left hand F# being placed after, rather than before the right hand here, in Rosenthal’s recording.)

  1. Rosenthal was aware of Pachmann’s renown as a Mazurka player but had never heard him play one, so visited Pachmann’s Berlin house unannounced early in 1902. As reported in Huneker’s book, Variations, Pachmann played a trick on him, refusing to give up his secrets.  He played through the entire collection but Rosenthal noted to Huneker that ‘not an accent was correct, the phrasing was falsified, though the precise notation was adhered to…The joke was later when Rosenthal teased De Pachmann about his trickery and the Chopinzee absolutely grinned with joy.’ (Blickstein and Benko, 197).
  2. Pachmann’s association with Liszt is the subject of a short chapter in Benko and Blickstein’s detailed account of his colourful life, but they admit that obtaining a conclusive picture is problematic due to some of the exaggerated stories Pachmann himself told.  What is sure is that Pachmann heard Liszt on several occasions, spent some time with him and seemed to receive high praise from him regarding his own Chopin interpretations (Blickstein and Benko, 37-43).  There is even the suggestion that some of his bizarre stage antics were inspired by Liszt.
  3. The story seems not to have come from Pachmann himself but through Mantia’s mother, Ida Bosisio, herself a student of a Liszt’s pupil, Sgambati.  Evans nevertheless claims to have found the story also corroborated by a Florentine colleague of Mantia’s mother, so it perhaps it remains a tantalising possibility. The pair of women apparently visited Rubio and heard the story from her, although she herself never mentioned it to anyone.