Written by: Rob Pennock
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
RCA RED SEAL 88697538852
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (2 April 1948)
Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor (21 March 1949)
RCA RED SEAL 88697548122
Schumann Fantasy in C, Op.17 (8 April 1946) plus pieces by Balakirev, Chopin and Liszt (1947/1950)
RCA RED SEAL 88697804742
Haydn and Beethoven piano sonatas (1945, 1947 & 1948)
Vladimir Horowitz – The Greatest?
Vladimir Horowitz was born in 1904 in Berdichev, in what is now the Ukraine. Until his death in New York in 1989, Horowitz excited controversy, admiration and sometimes near-hysterical adulation wherever he appeared. His concerts were major events. At his finest he conjured sounds from the piano that few, if any, could rival. The virtuosity was jaw-dropping and for many he was the twentieth-century’s greatest pianist. To add to this appeal he disappeared from the public eye during 1936 to 1938, 1953 to 1965, 1969 to 1974, and 1983 to 1985 and rumours of nervous collapse, institutionalisation and insanity were rife. His concert performances were rare, but cancellations were not. He married Toscanini’s daughter Wanda, yet all of his friends and fellow musicians, including Josef Hoffman, Serge Koussevitzky, Nathan Milstein and Artur Rubinstein knew that he was gay. His seeming inability (not unusual at the time) to acknowledge his sexuality led to him seeing a psychiatrist in 1940 and may have been one of the main causes of his undoubtedly serious mental-health issues. As is always the case, many have gone further and succumbed to the temptation to suggest that Horowitz’s unsatisfied sexual longings, guilt and self-loathing may also have contributed to his playing style and technique. There are no definitive answers to these questions and there may never be, unless there are revealing diaries and letters to be discovered, or his estate has withheld what they consider to be compromising material.
Rather surprisingly, apart from two worthy but unsatisfactory biographies by Glenn Plaskin and the ubiquitous Harold C. Schonberg and a book entitled Evenings With Horowitz by David Dubal (who contributes a booklet note for one of the discs under discussion) there is no modern reference-standard life-history. However all that really matters is the quality of Horowitz’s playing. Fortunately he made a large number of recordings of live and studio performances and every so often another disc will appear from official or unlicensed sources.
From March 1945 to March 1951 all bar one of Horowitz’s Carnegie Hall recitals were recorded on acetate at his behest by the Carnegie Hall Recording Service, from which the pianist had private 78 rpm and LP discs produced. These acetates (or lacquers) are now part of the Horowitz Archive at Yale University. Some years ago RCA issued a rather haphazard selection of excerpts from these concerts on two discs. Now, in co-operation with the Archive and the Horowitz estate, Sony Music has released a further three discs drawn from nine concerts. The programming is sensible. It is not clear from the introductory note by Executive Producer Anthony Steckler whether any further discs are planned.
It is not unreasonable to ask, given that the discs retail at full-price, whether anyone, other than Horowitz fans and piano aficionados, really needs them. Surely with over 400 titles available on CD and DVD, the Horowitz market is saturated? Few things in the world of music are that simple and for many who knew and heard the pianist on a regular basis, the post-war years were his golden-age, the technique, intellect and emotions working together in often well-nigh-perfect accord. In addition the shorter romantic pieces include Balakirev’s Islamey and Liszt’s glorious Legend, Saint François de Paule marchant sur la flots, which Horowitz didn’t record commercially; while Liszt’s B minor Sonata is very different from Horowitz’s celebrated 1932 HMV version.
All of which begs the question, what was it about this man and his playing that still makes many think he was the greatest pianist? First of all there was the technique. Horowitz never seemed to raise his hands more than a few centimetres above the keyboard and yet he could produce a massive sound. The fingers and wrists were often very level and there is remarkable film of him playing a Schubert Impromptu late in his career in Vienna in which the fingers and palms almost seem to be flat against the keys and yet the sounds that are produced are a miracle of legato, cantabile phrasing and control. In April 1946 in Schumann’s Fantasy one has only listen to the start of the third movement to hear the beautifully rounded, yet translucent tonal palette create an atmosphere that is truly Langsam Betragen, and throughout the work the shading is quite exceptional. The same can be said of the slow sections of Liszt’s Sonata, and the coda is outstandingly well voiced and the slow movement of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata is exceptionally beautiful. To produce such sounds requires absolute control, combined with an innate command of touch.
Horowitz could also produce a kaleidoscopic range of colours at speed. Liszt’s Sonata has five leading motifs and from Horowitz every line and strand sounds different with the two hands often simultaneously producing different tonal characteristics. This way of playing accentuates the features that bind these themes and the work together and brings to mind Claudio Arrau’s assertion that everything in the Sonata is a variation on the first theme and that that theme commences with the opening scale.
Combined with this there is an ability to produce exceptional clarity. In Islamey the speed is incredible (only Simon Barere is faster) and yet the delineation of rhythm and the way in which even the thickest textures are made transparent is unique. Horowitz’s Scarlatti is rightly celebrated and his Haydn is similarly brilliant. There is a sense of relish and enjoyment behind every bar of the E flat Sonata and the pedal control is absolute. This aspect of his technique is fundamental to the control of texture and dynamics. Beethoven was not high on Horowitz’s list of priorities, yet the ‘Waldstein’ is fascinating. Everything is lucid and controlled. He observes the first movement repeat (at that time when their observation was not de rigueur) and crowned by very beautiful and, yes, profound slow movement. But as with his playing of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, there is a lack of line and cumulative power, episodic and slightly precious and the coda lacks finality.
Many people listen to Horowitz to hear death-defying double octaves and staggeringly outrageous virtuosity. To listen to him play his arrangement of Liszt’s version of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March is one of the most thrilling things imaginable. But the virtuosity could be self-defeating, when it led him to amend (or rather – make more difficult) pieces such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Nor could he always resist the temptation to play too quickly and too loudly, which could seriously disfigure performances. At the end of Pictures the added trills are totally unnecessary and his desire throughout the work to ostentatiously rewrite music that he considered non-pianistic is unforgivable. This is Walt Disney Mussorgsky. St Francis walking on water is, as pure virtuosity, outstanding. There isn’t a note out of place, but the climaxes are too fast and there is no sense of ecstatic spirituality; and the finale of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata is a far from note-perfect stampede. In Schumann’s Fantasy there are added bass octaves, and at the end of the second movement there is either a serious 19-bar memory lapse, or Horowitz for some reason cuts the music, before launching into an untidy account of what remains of the final bars. Yet in Islamey and Liszt’s Sonata the virtuosity is used purely as an expressive tool. In the Sonata some of the climaxes and double octaves are terrifying, and he also attempts the impossible and tries to follow Liszt’s markings of presto, prestissimo, molto prestissimo that lead to the final shattering statement of the grandioso religioso theme. Crucially all of this virtuosity is used for interpretive reasons and not as end-in-itself. Much the same can be said of Islamey and one can forgive the occasional omission of a bar, to hear such an imaginative and indeed revelatory account of the work. And, despite the brickbats, Horowitz’s account of Schumann’s Fantasy is one of the greatest I have heard. Which leaves Chopin’s Barcarolle. Given the amount of Chopin Horowitz played and recorded you might have expected something exceptional. What you actually get is a rather prosaic, consistently too loud and forceful performance.
Finally there is also the word “greatest” to consider. We live in age where interpretative license is seen in some quarters as a sin, where the performer must play the latest scholarly edition of the score and be steeped in the performing styles and traditions of the composer’s era. Yet if we look at three contemporary pianistic giants – Martha Argerich, Mikhail Pletnev and Krystian Zimerman – they are clearly in the same mould as Horowitz. Their pianism is notoriously (and quite wonderfully) subjective and flamboyant, but all can offer profound and often startling insights into the mind of a composer. Whether purists and pedants like it or not, people don’t just go to a concert to hear the music, they go to hear it played by a particular artist. A score is simply a series of symbols and words that need to be brought to imaginative, thought-provoking life. Several years ago I heard a well-known pianist who is an excellent example of that recent species, the technically brilliant artist, who is almost completely devoid of imagination or personality, play Liszt at Wigmore Hall and after a note-perfect, very tasteful account of a Hungarian Rhapsody, I could only shake my head and wish that it had been Horowitz on the platform.
The gaps in Horowitz’s repertoire certainly don’t endear him to those who see Rachmaninov as a second-rate composer. But you don’t go to Horowitz for Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms. You do go to him for Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scarlatti and Haydn. You might not always agree with what he does, but the power of personality and the sheer charisma of the man shine through.
Horowitz is not the twentieth-century’s greatest pianist, because no such creature exists. If stuck on the proverbial desert island I would have to choose Sviatoslav Richter, but it would be a sad world that did not and could not value and celebrate the mercurial, wayward genius of Vladimir Horowitz.