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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No 2
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No 1
Vladimir Horowitz, piano
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini
Recorded May 1940 (Brahms) May 1941 (Tchaikovsky)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110671 [73’46]


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These star-studded recordings represent a sizeable chunk of Horowitz’s pitifully small legacy of concerto performances. Off-air recordings of the second Brahms – from Lucerne in 1939 and a 1948 NBC broadcast – have swelled the discography but it’s still a small return for so great a musician.

The performances on Naxos’s disc – from 1940-41 – have their admirers but I’m not one of them. Nor it has to be said is sleeve-note writer Ian Julier an admirer of the Brahms in particular. His notes are forthright and honest in this respect and a welcome change. I wish more writers were as critically informed. The Brahms is, to my ears, a terrible performance. Julier notes the result to be "detached…brusque...reluctant to engage in true dialogue…" and from its ridiculously over emphatic first entry onwards I am in total agreement. I would add that the first movement features some notably choppy rhythm, mechanical phrasing, both perfunctory and indifferent; that Toscanini’s crisp phrase endings sound more and more unpleasantly enervating; that Horowitz’s descending treble run in this movement is so naughty as to be laughable; that the inflexibility is endemic; that there are distinct tempo strains between soloist and conductor; and also that the infamous lower frequency muddiness in the bass still haunts the entire recording, despite the restoration.

In the second movement Toscanini is rhetorical and gestural and Horowitz makes precisely nothing of the melting tune; I’ve never heard playing less engaged and there is a cold metronomic malaise over the whole movement. Even Frank Miller, doyen of cellists, sounds constrained and withdrawn in his third movement solo – not unfeeling just not much heart – doubtless the fault of a conductor and a soloist who skate remorselessly over the surface of the music. The finale gives off some heavy accents – albeit with some attractive, quiescent playing – but what an air of sheer triviality hangs over the performance, what remorseless mediocrity. The following year Fischer and Fürtwangler were taped in a live recording of the concerto – fistfuls of wrong notes, indifferent sound, but what a performance, what tangible, extraordinary engagement, next to which Horowitz and Toscanini shrivel to almost total insignificance.

The Tchaikovsky is better but it’s still not a reading that I enjoyed. In fact by the end I had long since wearied of it. It opens in overwrought, thunderous and hotheaded style – though there is, as Julier says, much that is attractive – tremendous reserves of intensity, colour and weight. There is also an occasional gracefulness that comes as a welcome relief from the high-octane passion and frankly all-too-often hysterical intensity of the reading as a whole. I think it’s true to say that a performance of this kind does considerable damage to the fabric of the concerto – listen to Rubinstein and Barbirolli instead; a performance of real understanding.

Jonathan Woolf


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