Press Reviews

Jean Roy - Vlado Perlemuter master class

Vlado Perlemuter studied Ravel with Ravel and Fauré with Fauré. A witness of the golden age of the piano he has heard Busoni, Vines, Cortot. Revered by his peers, more concerned with serving music than furthering his own career, he is, at 86, a living legend.


In the new collection of 'De la Musique' directed by Brigitte Massin, the Alinéa editions have published this month a re-edition of  Ravel according to Ravel by Vlado Perlmeuter and Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, with an accompanying text by Jean Roy: Meetings with Vlado Perlemuter.

One of the chapters in the Meetings enables us to follow a Masterclass that he gave

 for  Japanese students at the Ecole Normale in July 1998.


I remember having attended Alfred Cortot's interpretation classes on César Franck and Gabriel Fauré in that same room. During his classes Cortot was more distant with his students than Perlemuter. He was more concerned with the substance than the technique. When he sat at the piano-the moment the audience was waiting  for with impatience-the piano was suddenly metamorphosed. Years later, I still remember the examples that he gave to make them understand in what spirit and with what colour the Aria et Finale should be approached. But he appeared to me to be a little distant, a little indifferent. What struck me with Perlemuter is the quality of the attention, that without distinction, he gives to all his students, be they more or less gifted. He can be, in certain circumstances, severe. If sometimes he doesn't spare his criticism, it is because deep down he himself is irritated. He really took things to heart. He gives himself completely and if he thinks that one of his students hasn't worked hard enough, he tells the student clearly that he hasn't played the game, and that he's really annoyed. In front of a student who used ill health as a reason for his poor performance  (which in fact was true) he nevertheless continued the lesson, but at the end he concluded with a general observation which was obviously (because he himself had suffered serious health problems) if not a confession at least a profession of faith: “ The career of a pianist is both terrible and sublime. Even when one is sick, one must try to play”.


27th July:

The interpretation class started with the first piece of Maurice Ravel's Miroirs: Noctuelles. Vlado Perlemuter made the following observations to his students: “It's exact, we hear everything, but I play the Noctuelles a little more slowly, a little more accentuated, a little more expressive and, all in all, I sing a little more than you. Don't hurry. But not too slow... Your playing is a little taut”.

The lesson continues with Une Barque sur l'Océan (N°3 of the Miroirs) played by the same student: “Your playing is very supple and very clear. For heaven's sake keep this suppleness! Suppleness and clarity, these are the basic qualities. At certain moments your playing could be a little  more orchestral”. Ravel had an orchestral vision for this piece. “At the beginning, stress the bass notes and link the harmonies with the pedal. We must hear them all. It has to be more orchestral. I'll make one last remark: towards the end, don't drag”.

A second student played the beginning of l'Alborada del Grasioso (n°4 of Miroirs).

Vlado Perlemuter spoke for quite some time on this: “The whole of the central part of the Alborada is like a voice that stands out.( He imitates there the sound of a voice that changes in pitch).You have to think about Flamenco...The clown's aubade is a bit ridiculous, but almost tragic. It's someone who is crying- or seems to cry- and the tone you have to find is ' wailing' rather than crying”. The student played the beginning of  the Alborada and Vlado Perlemuter stopped him: “You're giving the impression of someone sitting by the fireside in a comfortable armchair knitting...It's not lively enough, it's too slow”!


Ravel's  Alborada is biting.  It should be played almost with claws. Your accents are too heavy”. Vlado Perlemuter played one of the scales with  the biting sonority that he had just recommended. He added: “ Your Alborada is 'good natured' Alborada”. Play it dryly, and make the arpeggios tighter!This page is very different from the other Miroirs,, where the search for the sonority dominates. It's the rhythm which is important here. (Here, Vlado Perlemuter accompanies his commentary with a gesture as if playing the guitar). In the orchestra the bass fff, is played by the bass drum. We  can obtain this fff on the piano with the three fingers: with only the little finger it's too weak. For the rhythm you've got to be like steel. Don't hurry and don't slow down”. The student played the Alborada del Gracioso once again. His playing was literally transformed: he'd understood the lesson.

Another student played Maurice Ravel's Sonatine: “One of the difficulties of the first movement is to maintain a balance between what should be retained and what should be played in the tempo. You have to be supple and exact. This first movement is written for four voices and another difficulty is to keep the balance between the different passages. The Sonatine is built from the beginning to the end on a fourth interval, which has something plaintive about it. It's important to know that to give cohesion to what you're playing. It's important also to play the phrases with much suppleness but without interruption. Ravel was very demanding on this particular point

The minuet is a little melancholic: it's the reversal of the fourth interval that gives, once again, this plaintive character. When I played this Minuet for Ravel, he stopped me right at the first measure and said to me: “It's too quick..if you play this movement too quickly it becomes a waltz and if you play it too slowly it becomes a sarabande. What I've written, Sir, ( that's how he addressed me), is a minuet. At the end of the minuet, with a vibrato of the pedal, the sound becomes much purer”.

He didn't make any particular observations on the third movement, apart from the  crescendo and the diminuendo. Vlado Perlemuter reminded us of a general rule that Hans von Bülow had already taught: you must know how to play a crescendo without rushing and a diminuendo without slowing down. “I'm not saying that it has to be metronomic, but you must not give the impression of slowing down when you do a diminuendo, except, of course, if it's indicated on the score. We can find, for example  an indication by Chopin: “less loud and slow down”.


28th July

Before beginning the class Vlado Perlemuter showed us the copy of Ravel's manuscript of the Jeux d'eau, which the class had been studying the previous day. He had spoken about the fifth which  accentuates the left hand in the last but one measure. Should it be repeated in the last measure? The printed edition, which is different from the manuscript, includes one liaison, which would indicate the opposite. In his recording of the Jeux d'eau, he repeats this fifth the first time softly and, the second time, it's hardly perceptible, like a distant echo. He confirmed the fact that he had always repeated it, but that he was incapable of saying why. And then, he added, that it was just a detail. A detail which seemed however, to preoccupy him because he came back on the same point today.

The Tombeau de Couperin was the first piece programmed: “For the 'Prélude', Ravel wanted the text to be very sober where  nuance was concerned , like Early music. “However, we can play this passage a little more pianissimo...Here, you've too much pedal...The pedal must be extremely short...Attention! The use of the pedal is extremely important...!”

For the beginning of the 'Prélude', Vlado Perlemuter indicated Ravel's fingerings, then started to play and said to the student: “I use less pedal than you”. Reminding us that Ravel had orchestrated Le Tombeau de Couperin, he added: “ It's in the pianist's interest to know which instrument the composer used for such and such a passage. Here, it's the oboe. Try therefore to find a sonority which resembles the oboe. Try that, and you'll find that makes for a lot of progress!

But there is another problem. You have to play this 'Prélude' like a harpsichord, that's to say on the

biting  notes you must pinch the note. That's for the right hand, while the left hand must play with the fingers in the keys. The left hand in the keys  and the right hand more pinched. And the biting ones, more lively, quicker!”Vlado Perlemuter put his hands on the keyboard and let us hear these two clearly distinct sonorities. Where sonority is concerned, this independence of the hands, is one of the aspects of his pianistic art.

The student played  Forlane' Vlado Perlemuter said to him: “At the end, don't slow down. Your rhythm is good, and it's difficult. Few pianists do it. This rhythm goes through the whole of  Forlane. Sometimes, however, you play it a little too slowly.  Don't forget that apart from the Fugue and the Toccata all the pieces in the Tombeau de Couperin are of a dancing nature. Here,the character is a little monotonous, and it's on purpose, but if the tempo is too slow, it gives the impression of  being too long. We can't know immediately if the movement is good and that's why I let you continue”. The student starts again with a quicker tempo. Vlado Perlemuter is satisfied but tells him to play the biting notes in time. In order to understand the rhythm of Forlane better Vlado Perlemuter used this formula: “It's like a dancer who gives a little bow”, and he imitates the dancer's movement... “The problem that  Forlane raises”, he concluded, “Is that you have to avoid monotony: for that you have to find different, more biting sonorities for the middle of this piece. But “ once you've found the right movement everything will be better”.

The Menuet is played with the right tempo.Vlado Perlemuter congratulates the student and advises him to observe  Ravel's indications carefully. Here, without the soft pedal; then further on with the soft pedal: If we don't follow these instructions, it becomes monotonous”. Commentating on the passage with chords, in the middle of the Menuet, he says that it is one of the finest passages in the Tombeau de Couperin, “ something like a tombstone which goes beyond the notion of a minuet”.

He then smiles and turns toward the audience, before speaking to the student: “To be a teacher you have to have eyes and ears. You played these two notes with the same finger and naturally they weren't linked”.

The Toccata led to new observations on the use of the pedal, which is the “worst enemy of a good pianist”. He stated what Theodor Leschetizky, who had had Artur Schnabel amongst his pupils said: “You must use the pedal with your ears and not your feet”.  Vlado Perlemuter reproached the student who had just played the Toccata  in a rapid but clear movement, for having at a certain place, used too much pedal. Before making this remark, he congratulated him on not giving in to the temptation of the 'arrangements', of not playing “like a machine but as a musician, and of having understood that the Toccata was composed of two elements: the toccata and the expressive melody, and at the end there was a battle between these two elements. Nevertheless, the Toccata must be played rapidly: I asked Ravel if it was absolutely necessary to follow the indicated movement. He replied that it was necessary to play as quickly as possible as long as it remained clear”.


The study  of the first book of Claude Debussy's  Images was devoted to the Hommage à Rameau.

On the score of the student who had just played  Reflets dans l'Eau, Vlado Perlemuter added a fourth p to the ppps:”  Your beginning is too loud, too heavy! I play it more blurred, but without exaggeration”. “Here, it has to be luminous like the sun. It's not colourful enough”. He doesn't  spend much time on this. Vlado Perlemuter is impatient to hear Hommage à Rameau, which he considers to be one of the master pieces of Claude Debussy's piano music.. “I'm going to be hard on you. I love this music so much! He interrupts the student at the first measures: “The first notes are fine, but after you're in too much of a hurry. It has to be both rigorous and free (…) It's a sarabande (...)  Sing it. And do the phrasing of the Sarabande well  (...) The silences must be respected absolutely, as always with Debussy.(...) Mark the echo well (….) In the crescendo, it's not a question of playing loudly but of playing clearly.(...) Sing a little more in the superior parts (…) The piano, here, is an orchestra”.

The student ( a young man) is less gifted than the young woman who had played Ravel's 'Toccata', but Vlado Perlemuter, gave him just as much attention, numerous recommendations, modified a fingering on the score, and when he played himself to give examples, sang a part of the melody,  in other words gave himself totally to his pedagogical mission.

After Ravel and Debussy, Frédéric Chopin: First Ballade in G minor op 23 Vlado Perlemuter recalled that during an international competition he had heard fifty students (of the fifty who were competing ) make the same mistake: the first phrase, instead of being presented calmly, was rushed. He doesn't go as far as to suggest playing it more slowly than the rest but he insisted on the fact that the beginning of the ballade shouldn't be hurried or rushed.



29th July

A student played César Franck's Prélude, Chorale and Fugue, and Vlado Perlemuter complimented him on constructing  his interpretation so well.

He had worked on this piece with Alfred Cortot, to whom Louis Diémer had transmitted the tradition of César Franck. He made a remark on a small detail but added, “I wouldn't want that to change the overall result of what you've played”. He went on to develop his remark. “If  we don't have an overall view it could seem too long. That's not the case with you because you kept my interest right to the end. But perhaps you play the Fugue a little too quickly. However, I prefer it to be too fast than too slow. And that's perhaps a question of generation....but in any case in a piece of music everything must be held together. Concerning this I'll give the example of Liszt's Sonata”. Coming back to the tempo of the Fugue he adds,”If we play the Fugue too quickly it becomes agitated. The opposing subject must be calm. You play the right hand too loudly. You have to give the impression of an other keyboard. Think of the organ...One more remark: in certain places it's not legato. There again you have to think of the organ”.

César Franck's Prélude, Choral and Fugue and Gabriel Fauré's Ballade op.19, in the version for piano only, follow: “ The beginning is very even...In the crescendo molto passage you must play more elegantly. It's one of Fauré's most beautiful phrases and there is a contrast with the beginning of the Ballade, which is peaceful”. Vlado Perlemuter goes to the piano and plays: the song is simple, the phrasing large. Further on there is a more dreamlike passage, more sensitive. But Vlado Perlemuter insists on the evenness of the left hand. He doesn't think the student's hand is supple enough, and above all wants the position of the fifth finger to be more natural. Play more simply, sensitively...But without slowing down”. Once again he puts his hands on the keyboard and thinks how mysterious  memory is. “How, do I remember these few measure? They've come back to my fingers yet it's been  thirty years since I played them”. He insists on the punctuation: “Here, you stop too dryly, it's just a comma”. A last remark to the student before complimenting him on bringing the piece back to life. “You mustn't play too tightly at the end. Be more at ease”.

Another student plays two Chopin Etudes: the Opus 25 N°6 and the Opus 10 n°10. In the first one, which is a study in thirds, Vlado Perlemuter asks him to ensure that in the thirds the superior note is

more colourful than the  inferior note. He changes the student's position and tells him not to be afraid of adjusting the height of the piano stool, and to take the time necessary for that without being intimidated by the public. “But once at the piano, you should be immobile. I don't like pianists who grimace”. He insisted on the importance of the left hand in Chopin's music and to illustrate this point played only the left hand . The chords are played with lightness and expressiveness: “There, too, you must colour the superior note a little more. In this study, the left hand must sing and must be light”. Vlado Perlemuter advised the student to work on the left hand separately so that it appears to be in itself a piece of music.

The following remarks were made on the Etudes Opus 10 N°10 in A flat major (vivace assai):

“Pay particular attention to the details in the writing. There's great diversity there. Chopin uses the

same motif with different accents. We find in Chopin's Etudes, in which there are a thousand different ways to attack the piano,  expressive passages which require a particular technique...In certain of Chopin's Etudes, the motif remains the same, but there are others where he varies in the middle of the piece. In the Etude Opus 10 n°10, the motif remains the same but the attacks are different. The Ballade in f minor Opus 52 leads us to think about the octaves that Chopin uses frequently ( probably, as Perlemuter thinks, because he does it in an exceptional way). First of all you must try to play them as legato as possible. And it's  important to note that they are part of a polyphonic organization. Chopin has always been tempted by double notes and octaves. The Etudes Opus 26 is an example of this, but unlike the recommendation for the thirds Vlado Perlemuter indicates that for the octaves the base must ring out more loudly. He insists on the beginning of the Ballade being played with the soft pedal and comments on the second motif ( that he doesn't want to be played too slowly): “It's like a sad song that has no end, it's like a melody with a vaguely oriental influence”.He plays the left had by itself and then, in the same way, the left hand of  Etudes Opus 25 n° 6.

What we hear is pure music.

“I know the left hand by heart. You must work it separately and know it by heart”.


Test by Jean Roy

This text is an excerpt from Meetings with Vlado Perlemuter, by Jean Roy, which accompanies the re-edition of Ravel according to Ravel by Vlado Perlemuter and Hélène Jourdan-Morhange.

Alinéa De la musique,1989

Le Monde de de la Musique N°123, July 1989




Contrat Creative Commons by Olivier Mazal is available according to the terms of the Creative Commons licence Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivs 3.0 Unported.