Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

Vlado Perlemuter

One of the highlights of my years studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester was the opportunity to play in masterclasses for the great French pianist, Vlado Perlemuter. These classes were held in what was known as the 'organ room', and so it was appropriate perhaps that the first piece I played for him was the Prelude Chorale and Fugue by the great organist Cesar Franck. It was inspiring to know that the small, quietly elegant man, seated on my left and wearing a woollen scarf, had studied the piece with Alfred Cortot, and had been at the centre of an incomparably rich time in Parisian pianistic life - either in direct contact or only a generation removed from all of the greatest figures in French music of the period. He seemed to like what I was doing with the piece, although he stressed the gravity of its mood, the seriousness at the heart of Franck's vision. "Don't play this passage like Meyerbeer" he commented as I turned the corner of a phrase with too sweet an inflection. "Like a procession" was his comment in the opening of the Chorale, emphasising its liturgical spirit. He wrote some interesting fingerings in my score, including his suggestion to play the opening arpeggios with the right-hand thumb on the thematic first notes. (I did this for a while afterwards but then I found that brilliant Steinway pianos were not really suited to it. It was too easy to find notes in the following arpeggios jumping out with a jangle, but I can see that on older, more mellow instruments if would have been an excellent way to shape that particular melody.)

One of his passions was that one should never repeat a note with the same finger when it was part of a melodic line. This idea came into its own when I played the 4th Ballade of Chopin for him with its tender repetitions in the main theme; and, indeed, this is an understanding of fingering and its role in shaping a phrase which comes to us from Chopin himself. What has to be calculated artificially with one finger becomes an organic phrase when the whole hand is employed - literally moulding the contours of the melody with elasticity and naturalness. The importance of the left hand was often mentioned too in the classes, not so much in the bringing out of voices, but in the shaping and refining of the harmonic base under the melodic line. Thus Chopin Etudes, where the difficulty appears to be in the fast-moving right-hand figuration, become virtuosic in the fullest sense when the left-hand is played with total command and with a palette of subtle colouration.

For a man with such impressive musical connections it was refreshing to observe Perlemuter's modesty. Names which could have been dropped with regularity were quietly mentioned only to emphasise a point: "Ravel told me to do this ...". (Hard to argue with that!) Indeed, so quiet were his comments at times that only those in the front seats were able to hear them. He was giving a lesson with people present, not entertaining an audience. He only taught repertoire with which he felt completely at home, and on the School of Keyboard notice board was pinned a sheet with the works he was prepared to hear: all of Chopin, all of Ravel, but only specified, if fairly wide-ranging, selections of other composers. The omissions were interesting: no Russians as I recall, which seems strange perhaps from someone with Polish-Jewish roots; and no contemporary works - less strange from one who had lived a long time and had seen many 'contemporary eras'. However on one occasion, when we had some time left over, I did suggest playing Rachmaninoff's 2nd concerto for him. He laughed and said that it was not a piece he taught but he was happy to listen to it. He had nothing to say, not because it was particularly well-played (!), but because it appeared to be outside his particular world of refinement and moderation, where expression was always tempered with elegance. There was absolutely no sense of undermining the piece or of any condescension; it was simply in another language which he found difficult or unnecessary to speak. For all of his Slavic and Semitic background, Perlemuter communicated musically with the purest of French accents; and, in repertoire where that was appropriate, it seemed at the time to be the only way it could be played.

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Stephen Hough