Vlado Perlemuter biography

Vlado Perlemuter's association with the piano music of Ravel contributed considerably to his international celebrity - and yet at the same time it obscured the scope of an art that also resonated closely with the musical worlds of Chopin, Fauré, Debussy, and indeed with Schumann, Beethoven, Liszt and Mozart. The sobriety and reserve of Perlemuter's playing were often taken for coldness by a public that proved to be more sensitive to the flamboyance of an Alfred Cortot or a Samson François than to the poetry of an art made up of the tension of self-effacement before the ineffable quality of the work. However, his peers were not wrong, from Arthur Rubinstein to Yehudi Menuhin, from Dinu Lipatti to Henri Barda, from Pierre Boulez to Claudio Arrau.

With Perlemuter, an acute feeling for phrasing and for polyphony, a magnificently rounded sonority (supported by masterly use of the pedal) and an admirable legato combine to form unique conceptions in which technique and expression achieve fusion and in which the performer, from being a rarified presence, becomes imperceptible. Gifted with an unsettled sensitivity, the ever-alert performer dissolves into the work without ever taking root. Discretion, sobriety, balance, smoothness, self-effacement, simplicity, vigour: so many qualities that produce Perlemuter's uniqueness.

Born of Polish Jewish parents who had fled the pogroms, Vlado Perlemuter was born on 26 May 1904 in Lithuania where he lived until the age of three, the family then settling definitively in Paris. Having lost the use of his right eye from a splinter of glass received when playing with his brothers, he was given piano lessons from about the age of eight on the advice of a friend of his father. His remarkable aptitude for the instrument enabled him to study with Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) who forged the foundations of his technique and kindled his passion for fingerings as well as his taste for limpid, straightforward playing: he instilled in his disciple the independence of the fingers of the two hands, the suppleness of the wrists, the freedom of the arms, the conquest of true legato and direct transmission. "I have a very vivid memory of the way in which he liked to sit on the left side of the pupil, keeping a close eye on his hands and continually annotating the score", indicated Perlemuter. "Moszkowski in particular noted indications for fingerings, trying out several possibilities before writing down on the score a new fingering. He seemed to be exceedingly taken up by these problems and often made fairly surprising suggestions, although they did seem to me, after having tried them out, to be quite natural and even logical. At this time he was already an old gentleman. He had had a few disappointments during the First World War on account of his German citizenship, and he had not been well treated by the authorities. But thanks to his faithful friends – some of the ladies in the salons where he had played – he was free. Despite all that he was from then on very busy, teaching and playing, although he no longer played as well as in his young years. He was also preparing new editions of Beethoven’s Sonatas and some of Chopin’s pieces … In my opinion he truly had a genius for choosing fingerings”1.

Perlemuter entered the Conservatory in 1915. Entry into the advanced class of Alfred Cortot two years later proved absolutely decisive, so much did the latter overwhelm the young teenager with his exceptional charisma and the incredible musical imagination he showed at the piano: “I owe everything to him” Perlemuter used to say. “Cortot’s teaching had something luminous about it. All his care and attention went into interpretation. He did not teach technique. His classes often took on the appearance of veritable concerts. He did not delve into Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. He played them and impregnated us with them”2. The teaching of Pierre de Bréville initiated Perlemuter into the joy of chamber music. Listening to recitals by Rachmaninov (“It was an orchestra, not a piano”) and of Busoni profoundly impressed the young musician and sharpened his sense of polyphony. Armed with a First Prize gained on 4 July 1919 with Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, Fauré’s Thème et Variations, Perlemuter won straight off the bat the Prix d’Honneur in 1920 with Variations, Interlude et Finale sur un theme de Rameau by Paul Dukas, whose presence in the jury led to his being preferred to Jeanne-Marie Darré, and on 13 May 1921 the prestigious Diémer Prize, the ancestor of international competitions, contented for every three years by the male first prize winners of the preceding ten years. Pierre de Lapommeray note in Le Ménestrel on this occasion: “Perlemuter already possesses great authority. His direct, sincere playing, with its avoidance of trickery, creates a great impression of ease; he by no means avoids the difficulties, he attacks them head on and brilliantly overcomes them. His performances of Beethoven and Chopin were particularly interesting: very straightforward, respectful of the main lines, without seeking easy effects. The jury’s judgement was approved by everyone” 3.

Having gained the kindly attention of Gabriel Fauré when the latter was director of the Paris Conservatory, Perlemuter spent the summers of 1922 and 1923 with him at the home of the Maillot family in Annecy-le-Vieux, playing many of his compositions to the great satisfaction of the composer. “He especially wanted his works to be played with great sobriety, with the rhythm always extremely closely adhered to with great rigour. He did not like mannerisms” 4. Perlemuter was entrusted with the private premiere of the Thirteenth Nocturne and of the Trio, and he played many pieces in the presence of the composer, the First Sonata for violin and piano, the Berceuse, the Elegie, several songs, the Ballade and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. At this time he appeared in cinema halls and trained as an accompanist with Claire Croiza, Madeleine Grey, Yves Tinayre, Ginette Guillamat and Marya Freund, whose repetiteur he was for a while.

Around 1924 Perlemuter developed a passionate interest in the music of Ravel, working at the complete works in the presence of the composer three years later: “My request was in itself anything but original, for someone who was used to being approached like that by so many artists. He replied in a fairly banal way, but accepted, probably without any enthusiasm, to see me… He accepted as he would have done for any young pianist showing an equivalent interest or enthusiasm. So I went to Montfort l’Amaury where Ravel had made his retreat and, when I stood before him, he coldly asked me this question: ‘So what is the work of mine you have been working at?’ When I replied that I had worked at them all, he was somewhat taken aback… That, I think, touched him greatly. Ravel, at that time, was at the summit of his career, but even so, to know that a performer was playing his works, and especially that he played all of them, gave him, I think, great pleasure”. The historian, ethnomusicologist and critic André Schaeffner proved to be particularly sensitive to a highly dynamic performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin given in the Salle Gaveau on 15 October 1926: “Let us express here our thanks and highlight in particular the name of Vlado Perlemuter who performed the Tombeau de Coperin with the most refined musicality, in a perpetual half-light which threw off only a few sparks: nothing noisily orchestral, simply a piano with wispy details” 5.

Perlemuter  was one of the very first to perform the complete piano works of Ravel, in two recitals (1929). “Maurice Ravel was there the other evening, precisely for congratulating M. Vlado Perlemuter for his dazzling technique, that covered up not a single feature, but highlighted, like pink on grey, a deep bass note or a fragile, very high note”, wrote Léandre Vaillat in Le Ménestrel 6. To Perlemuter also goes the honour of working with the composer on his Trio, of accompanying him in Ma Mère l’Oye, for piano four hands, and of taking part in the first public performances of the Chansons Madécasses. “I remember the emotion that seized me when, one day, at this time, Ravel climbed the five doors of the humble building I lived in – I lived in a little hovel – and appeared at my door: this was to ask me to play Ma Mère l’Oye four hands with him, and to take the piano part in the Chansons Madécasses for what was then the second or third public performance. He told me, “There is a concert of my works in a few days. Perlemuter, would you play Ma Mère l’Oye with me?”… It was for me a very great honour to play with Ravel, in public, his work for piano four hands, a piece he in fact was later to orchestrate” 7.

And, indeed, the composer “had very great respect, very great esteem for Vlado Perlemuter and Robert Casadesus”, according to the testimony of Manuel Rosenthal. “Despite his immense rigour, I must say that Ravel never showed himself to be over-directive”, continued Perlemuter. “He pointed out wrong notes, but in the end left the performer considerable freedom. What I learned from him was extremely minute attention to detail, precision of pedaling, of rhythm. He was very difficult about clarity, he wanted everything to be clearly apparent. He thought that pianists used pedal too much and found that the upper register of the piano was not lyrical enough”.

The press echoed Perlemuter’s talent at this time: “Here is a master among the younger pianists, one of those in whom the most noble and the highest hopes may be placed. His personality, infinitely attractive and just as lively, his splendid technique, are of that order that is the sole domain of born virtuosi. The most radiant future opens up before this pianist in whom one day we shall probably see one of the glories of the keyboard. Remember the success he had last year with his recital and also the magnificent concert he gave in the Salle de l’Ancien Conservatoire, with the collaboration of the prestigious Orchestre de la Société des Concerts conducted by M. Philippe Gaubert: the enthusiasm he then excited in an audience of sophisticated connoisseurs, was huge and more than one person heard to mutter in a low voice some of the great names M. Vlado Perlemuter seemed destined to equal, if no unforeseen obstacle come to bar his passage. The fact is that M. Vlado Perlemuter is a pianist in possession of the most superb physical means, he is, moreover, a musician perfectly informed about everything in music, skilled in the art of counterpoint and of fugue. And this, added to a temperament that is as fiery as it is logical, explains that” (Le Courrier Musical) 8.

If a large part of Perlemuter’s concerts were at that time given over to Chopin, Ravel, Beethoven and Liszt, he nonetheless contributed to contemporary premieres during the inter-war period, notably giving the first performance of Simon Laks’s Sonata for cello and piano with Maurice Maréchal and of Pierre de Bréville’s Allegro Appassionata with Pierre Fournier. He was also the first French pianist to play Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto after its premier by the composer.

In addition to his career as a soloist, Perlemuterf in 1925 set up a trio with Pierre Fournier and Gabriel Bouillon and appeared regularly in chamber music concerts alongside Zino Francescatti, Roland Charmy, André Lévy, Maurice Maréchal and the Calvet Quartet. The musical encounter with the cello of Pierre Fournier was a great source of inspiration for the young musician: “He was not then the great international figure he was to become, but he was already a magnificent artist and he brought an element of great joy to my youth. We had played the entire cello and piano repertory, Brahms, Fauré and all the rest” 9. In 1934 Perlemuter accompanied the dancers Alexandre and Clothilde Sakharoff on a world tour and from this time on appeared on several occasions in England, where a very close friendship linked him to the Booth family of Funtington that he visited every year. Perlemuter also played with the main orchestral formations, under the direction of Pierre Monteux, Paul Paray, Eugène Bigot, André Cluytens, Charles Münch, Manuel Rosenthal, Ernest Ansermet, Joseph Keilberth, Jean Martinon, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht, Serge Baudo, etc., having in his repertory the complete concertos of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Ravel (in addition to Rachmaninov’s Second, Gerschwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and some concertante works of Ibert, Poulenc, Honegger and others).

This was an extremely dark period for the musician who, subjected to the anti-Semitic laws of the Vichy regime, stayed hidden in Paris until May 1942. He then escaped, working his way through free France before managing to pass the Swiss border in December 1942. The eminent political role played by Alfred Cortot at the Ministry of Fine Arts in Vichy and his refusal to come to the aid of his pupil (which is corroborated by the unquestionable testimony of Antoine Goléa) noticeably worsened the relationship between the two men after the Liberation.

Having miraculously survived nearly five years of bronchial tuberculosis in the sanatorium of Leysin, Perlemuter took up teaching, at first in the Lausanne Conservatory and then the Paris Conservatory, where he held a class from 1951 to 1976, directing highly demanding classes in which there reigned, despite an evident rigidity and intransigence, a constant attention to musical experimentation. As he used to say, “The Most important thing is to respect the work. Play what is written, including what lies behind the notes, do not be afraid of projecting yourself, to put in some sound, musicians are not parrots, whatever all those pyrotechnicians may think who have neither soul nor true personality and who flourish today. Each performance should have its signature. Otherwise, silence is to be preferred. And then, you must be sensitive to your fingertips. Do not remain at the surface of the keyboard, but get into the keyboard. Bring the work into existence, like a new life that is awakening…Find the right tempo, which has nothing to do with the rigour of the metronome, but the internal pulse, the feeling that the performance can stand up in its fluidity. When you have understood that, playing the piano becomes straightforward” 10.

His career then started to take off on an international level, but it was in England, in Switzerland, in Canada and in Japan that his art found the most resounding echo. He taught at Bloomington (1961), in the most prestigious academies of England and Japan, at Mount Orford Camp in Quebec, in Australia and everywhere that his concerts led him. Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote in Le Monde, after a recital in July 1958,” Vlado Perlemuter’s recital was dazzling. Nobody plays Scarbo with this smoothness, with his strength, this excitement. The Sonatine played by Perlemuter is the most exquisite pleasure one can dream of. The delightful pleasure of a useless occupation? May it at any rate never come to an end. In Gabriel Fauré Perlemuter’s virtuosity accomplishes the miracle of contained power and of discretion. An enveloped, thoroughly “bergamasque” technique, a certain disdain for sluggishness and indulgence (Perlemuter’s tempo is a bit fast in the First Nocturne), an intimate understanding of the Fauréan mystery, make the Thirteenth Nocturne the majestic and radiant masterpiece of night musics”. 11 Despite the growing prestige of “Perlo”’s teaching at the conservatory, crowned by his invitation to be a jury member for the most high profile international competitions (the “Chopin” in Warsaw, the “Busoni” in Bolzano, the “Clara Haskil” in Vevey, etc.), his concerts in Paris became less frequent during the years 1960-70, and it was only in 1980, after an absence of seven years from the capital, that he played there once more, giving a recital in the Blanc Manteaux church, a concert that set certain matters straight and that earned him an ecstatic homage in Libération: “That a great, that an immense pianist, of the stature of a Cortot, Fischer, Schnabel, Backhaus, Nat or Lipatti could be almost entirely unknown to the general public is a strange paradox at a time when records pressed by their thousands and when on average you have the choice between three piano recitals per evening in Paris … No “Grand Echiquier” [a popular television programme] for Perlemuter, no packed Salle Pleyel, no eye-catching posters. And yet, all those who have once heard him keep a prodigious memory of him, the contrary of those new and boisterous virtuosos that are displayed on leading concert platforms or on television and who end up resembling each other”.12

In parallel, his association with the brand new English record producer Nimbus, founded in 1973, actively contributed to the diffusion of his art. Though Perlemuter had been invited by Georges Mendelssohn to record a Schumann recital, followed by an exquisite complete recordings of Ravel and Mozart for Vox, though Perlemuter was taken on in the 1960s by the Guilde du Disque, it was truly with Nimbus that the artistic ties were the longest-lasting and the most fruitful. For Nimbus Perlemuter recorded, among other marvels, indispensable recordings on the Third Sonata, the Ballades, the Polonaise-Fantaisie and the Preludes of Chopin, the Liszt Sonata, the Etudes Symphoniques of Schumann, not to mention many pieces of Ravel and Fauré. The enthusiasm he stirred up enabled him to take part in the Piano **** concerts, that lay at the origin of his second career in France.

 1984 also marked his debut in Italy, a country he performed in each year, at the Teatro Ghione in Rome and for the Amici Della Musica in Padua. That year, after the concert Perlemuter gave in London for his eightieth birthday, Hans Keller said on the B.B.C.: “This Chopin recital was an artistic event of such profound signification that, musically, nothing like it heard over the past two years can withstand comparison. It was absolutely staggering, and there was not the slightest sign of his age, except in the sense of the maturity of his performances: Perlemuter has reached a stage when, without any technical weakness, he now plays in a still more impressive manner than ever before … You should all have heard the reactions of every musician to the recital: we were all dumbstuck. Some of you, perhaps even all of you, know him as an artist: it goes without saying that as things stand today he rises above your finest memories” 13.

It was in Geneva, where he had began his international career in 1920, that Vlado Perlemuter chose to give last recital, wholly dedicated to Ravel. “I’ve come full circle”, he would say, although he continued to teach up until 2001 before dying in Paris at the age of 98.

Olivier Mazal.                                                                                               

Translated by Jeremy Drake.


1 “Vlado Perlemuter talks to Carola Grindea”, EPTA Piano Journal n°7, February 1982.

2. “Visite à Perlemuter: propos recueillis par Elisabeth Fath (Le Monde de la Musique), January 1980, p. 53.

3. Le Ménestrel, 13 May 1921.

4. Interview with Norbert Dufourcq, 2 July 1967.

5. Le Ménestrel, 22 October 1926.

6. Le Ménestrel, December 1929, Léandre Vaillat.

7. « Vlado Perlemuter nous parle de Ravel ». Entretien avec Claude Gingras ». La Presse, Montreal, 13 November 1965.

8. Le Courrier Musical, 1927, p. 558.

9. Interview with Angela Hughes, from Pierre Fournier, A cellist in a landscape of figures, p. 22.

10. Télérama n° 2089, 24 January 1990. Interview compiled by Xavier Lacavalerie.

11. Vladimir Jankélévitch, Le Monde, July 1958.

12. Alain Jaubert, Libération, 17 June 1980.

13. Letter from Hans Keller to the BBC, 1984.











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