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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Vladimir Horowitz – Legendary RCA Recordings
CD 1
Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23
With the NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini, recorded 1941
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op. 30
With the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner, rec. 1951
CD 2
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, op. 61, rec. 1951
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Träumerei (from Kinderszenen, op. 15), rec. 1950
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Preludes: in D flat, op. 48/3, in G flat, op. 11/13, in F sharp minor, op. 15/2, rec. 1956
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)

Étincelles, op. 36/6, rec. 1951
CHOPIN

Mazurka in C sharp minor, op. 30/4
Vladimir HOROWITZ after Georges BIZET (1838-1875)

Variations on a Theme from "Carmen", rec. 1947
Sergei PROKOFIEF (1891-1953)

Toccata, op. 11, rec. 1947
CHOPIN

Nocturne in E flat, op. 9/2, rec. 1957
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)

Rondo (from Sonata, op. 47/2), rec. 1950
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Presto, rec. 1947
RACHMANINOV

Prelude in G, op. 32/5, rec. 1977
SCHUMANN

Wieck Variations (from Grand Sonata in F minor, op. 14), rec. 1976
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonatas: in F minor, L.189, in A, L. 494, rec. 1981
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) arr. Busoni/Horowitz

Mephisto Waltz, rec. 1979
SCRIABIN

Étude in D sharp minor, op. 18/12, rec. 1982
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
RCA RED SEAL 82876 56052 2 [2 CDs: 66:59+72:04]

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CD1

Back in the days of the dear old LP one would sometimes put on a disc and sit back and relax, only to find an uncomfortable, pressurised feeling dawning upon one, as the disc proceeded, that something was wrong; it was all a bit too fast and lacking in deep bass. And sure enough, investigation would prove that some unredeemed younger sister in the family had been playing her pop records (and probably ruining the stylus into the bargain) and had left the gramophone switched over to 45 rpm. The curious thing was, though, how much music one could listen to before realising.

The reason was, I believe, that tempo is not an absolute thing. If the phrasing, the breathing and the general expression of the music fit perfectly into the time-frame provided by the tempo, then the tempo sounds right. It therefore follows that if the speed of the disc is increased from 33 rpm to 45 rpm, then not only the tempo but also the phrasing and the breathing and the expression are speeded up, so they still slot convincingly into the time-frame. Only gradually does one come to find a lack of body in the sound (because the pitch has been jacked up too) and, more importantly, since the human heart goes on beating at the same speed (with maybe a slight apoplectic spurt ahead when the younger sister’s involvement became apparent), one feels breathless even if the players do not, because something is going against nature.

The relevance of this is that the tempi employed by Horowitz and his fearsome father-in-law Toscanini in this performance of the first Tchaikovsky concerto must be around what you would get by taking an LP of a "normal" performance and playing it at 45 rpm (without an increase of pitch, of course). Such is the pianist’s lightning technique and the conductor’s iron control of the players’ phrasing and breathing, which slot naturally into the given time-frame, that you might not immediately notice just how fast it all is. And yet, gradually it all starts to sound wrong, with the more agitated passages sounding ludicrously frantic, the climaxes blatantly aggressive, and in the lyrical passages all Tchaikovsky’s yearning and passion has been squeezed out (hear the second subject of the finale).

Is it all Toscanini’s fault? Well, you can hear Horowitz playing the finale of this concerto in a live performance given in Copenhagen in 1934, with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Nikolai Malko, on DANACORD DACOCD 303. In 1941, with Toscanini, the movement took 6’ 06". In 1934, with Malko, it took …. 6’ 06"! But it was different in the earlier performance, accents are less banged out and there is a feeling of a joyful dance, and as Malko ushers in the second subject he finds time to give it a certain balletic grace, to which Horowitz responds. I’m not trying to claim Malko was a greater conductor than Toscanini but he was arguably a much better accompanist, and left Horowitz free to unrein his own fancy. The Horowitz/Toscanini is one of the great burn-ups of recorded music, but don’t think it has much to do with Tchaikovsky.

I’d be very reckless indeed if I similarly claimed that the Rachmaninov 3 hasn’t much to do with Rachmaninov, for the composer felt Horowitz played it better than he did himself and, though he consented to record it in 1939, he remarked of it (referring to Horowitz’s 1930 recording with Coates) "it’s Horowitz’s".

Fortunately, it is evident from the gentle unfolding of the opening theme that we are in a different world altogether. There is plenty of coiled-spring virtuosity when called for, but also poetry, grace and warmth. It so happened that I heard this at about the same time as Reiner’s "Rosenkavalier" from the Met, which I shall be reviewing shortly. I was impressed there by the way in which Reiner could maintain absolute control over ensemble, yet give the singers all the breathing space needed. His contribution here does not draw attention to itself, but I think that in the same way he provided Horowitz with a perfect back-drop against which to work.

Critics have pointed out that the piano unduly dominates the sound picture. Not so fast, please! I remember following several seasons of the Scottish National Orchestra sitting in the choir seats. Good for studying the conductor, but in piano concertos the pianist was often inaudible. Except when Shura Cherkassky played this same concerto and I heard every note. Even in the closing pages where most pianists get swamped, he dominated the texture. And if "just" Cherkassky could do this, what of Horowitz, who could command a colossal tone well able to dominate any orchestra and penetrate to the farthest reaches of the largest hall? Considering that there are also moments in this recording where the piano nestles into the orchestra much as we would expect, I suggest that it gives us a pretty good idea of what a concerto played by Horowitz sounded like. It is surely the finest of the three recordings of an interpretation whose definitive nature was recognised by the composer (even if in 1976 Horowitz opened out the traditional cuts made by Rachmaninov himself and virtually never made today).

CD 2

Quite what the rhyme or reason behind the sequence of pieces on this second disc is escapes me (later stereo recordings are grouped towards the end but the earliest 78s do not come at the beginning). Actually this matters not a jot, for Horowitz brings such a sense of discovery to each new piece that one does not seem to be hearing a sequence at all; one’s listening begins afresh with every new beginning.

I could leave it at that. But since many of these pieces were recorded in alternative versions down the years by Horowitz, comparisons raise some illuminating points.

The Polonaise-fantaisie seems to have reached its highest point in the late 1960s (a CBS LP without recording dates but published in 1971). This 1951 performance has some wonderful poetry together with the expected fire and brilliance, but sounds a shade skittish alongside the 1971 LP, where the pianist allows himself time to unfold the great structure with warmth and nobility (13:05 compared with 11:26). A 1982 live performance took similar tempi (13:02) but here the pianist’s desire to find something new in every bar is unsettlingly close to the grotesque.

There are signs, then, that this pianist’s art reached its apex in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a new depth was added to his incredible technique; in his last years, on the other hand, he could lapse into self-parody. As one of the encores to the recently rediscovered Carnegie Hall Recital of November 16th 1975 (RCA 82876 50754 2, reviewed by me for the site) you can hear him relishing the humour of Moszkowski’s "Les Étincelles" with a sense of delight which surpasses the dapper brilliance of the 1951 recording. Fizzing technique might seem all that his own "Variations on a Theme from ‘Carmen’" call for, yet in a Carnegie Hall recital of 1st February 1968, issued by CBS, he took that little extra time to extract an astonishing display of colour from it.

Not everything points this same way, though. In that same rediscovered recital of 1975 he can be heard worrying and nudging the line of "Träumerei", where in the 1950 performance, extracted from a complete (and wonderful) "Kinderszenen", he finds the right childlike simplicity. Best of all, however, is a 1968 live version (CBS) which finds him in quite incredibly relaxed form. Differences are small between the present op. 30/4 Mazurka and a live one from 1965, but such as they are it is the earlier recording which has the greater poise, its wide-ranging rubato managing not to go over the top as the later one occasionally does.

The 1975 recital also provides near contemporary comparisons for two pieces here, and both favour the present versions. He extracts a range of drama here from the Rachmaninov G major Prelude that most of us didn’t even imagine could exist; the 1975 performance seems merely a blueprint for it. The Schumann movement has greater warmth and naturalness here. Surprisingly, this 1976 recording begins with some moments of wow, but it has more bloom to it than the more clinical 1975 tape, which may also affect one’s reaction to the performance.

Lastly, while in 1982 Horowitz’s Scriabin op. 18/12 Study wasn’t quite so clean round the edges as in 1968 (CBS), he invested the opening pages with a valedictory glow beside which the earlier version sounds more conventionally barnstorming, while the close in 1982 still lacked nothing of the old fire.

I should add that, though it is highly recommendable for you to build up duplicate Horowitz performances and so get a more rounded portrait of him, all the remaining pieces which I have not mentioned (having no comparison to hand) I enjoyed unreservedly, and I should think anyone who has just these versions will scarcely believe that the master himself was able to surpass some of them. Horowitz was a legend indeed and practically everything here tells us why. Be careful with the Tchaikovsky, though.

A black mark for the presentation which gives only the year of each recording, without the location and without distinguishing between live and studio recordings. Applause is only heard after the last two tracks, but various coughs reveal a number of the others to be live too. The notes by Richard Freed are good, however.

Christopher Howell

 



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