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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’ in E flat major, Op. 73  (1810) [37:19]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [37:19]
Vladimir Horowitz, piano
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Rec. 26 April 1952 (Beethoven); 8, 10 April 1951 (Rachmaninov), Carnegie Hall, New York City, USA
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110787 [74:49]

Beethoven is not a composer that I’d readily associate with Vladimir Horowitz. Nonetheless it came as a surprise to read in Jonathan Summers’ useful booklet note just how little Beethoven he did perform. He learned the ‘Emperor’ at the specific request of Toscanini for a performance in 1933 but even then he didn’t play the work often in public thereafter. This recording from 1951 is, therefore, an interesting document.

When I first listened to this performance I wrote the following in my listening notes: "Opening flourishes are more display than rhetoric – should combine the two?" In fact, this was to prove a portent of much of what was to follow. Reiner conducts a brisk, no-nonsense opening ritornello. When the soloist re-enters Horowitz displays much brilliant finger work but, frankly, that’s about all. I could detect little relaxation and moments of repose were almost non-existent. In summary this traversal of what should be an imposing first movement is much too hard-driven for my taste.

Matters improve somewhat in the slow movement where Horowitz makes an impressively poetic first entry after Reiner has set the scene well. For much of the time in this movement Horowitz plays with a degree of feeling that was absent in the preceding movement though there remains an underlying directness to his approach. The quiet piano chords in the magical transition to the finale are beautifully weighted and the third movement itself begins with a lithe, energetic spring. However, as the finale proceeds the pretty relentless pace becomes wearing and, as in the first movement, the music is driven much too hard for its own good.

In summary this is a febrile performance, which I didn’t enjoy very much. I’d hesitate to say that such a distinguished artist just skates over the surface but I certainly have heard many more probing accounts of this profound concerto.

With the Rachmaninov Horowitz is on more familiar ground. This concerto was a staple of his repertoire throughout his career and the present recording was the second of three that he made. The others were made in 1930 for HMV with Albert Coates (Naxos 8.110696) and in 1978 for RCA with Eugene Ormandy. Coincidentally, that latter version, in its LP incarnation, was the very first recording of the work that I bought.

Rachmaninov 3 seems to suit him better than did the Beethoven. Once again brilliant dexterity is present in abundance. However, this time Horowitz does seem to recognise the passages where a bit more ‘give’ is appropriate and he’s rather more willing to relax in those pages. That said, the playing still comes across as highly-strung. There is some phenomenal playing in the cadenza.

The music of the second movement is characterised by a vein of melancholy and Horowitz conveys this quite well, though I’ve heard other pianists impart more feeling. He and Reiner build the movement to a powerful central climax and there’s some astonishingly deft finger work in the following scherzando episode. Horowitz attacks the finale with bravura but in this movement I did wonder if the performance wasn’t just too much "edge of the seat". Here, as elsewhere throughout both performances, the orchestra tends very much to take second place as the soloist pounds out the virtuoso passages. In the last analysis this is not a performance of the concerto to which I warm greatly.

Mark Obert-Thorn has transferred these performances from American LPs. He seems to me to have done a good job. However, the original engineering placed the piano very forwardly and there’s nothing that Mr. Obert-Thorn would have been able to do about that. Neither, I imagine, was it possible to correct the rather harsh, clangy tone of the piano, especially in louder passages. In places the piano just sounds plain aggressive.

This is a CD that will be of interest to admirers of Horowitz. However, even specialist Horowitz collectors will probably be able to think of many performances of both concertos by other pianists that are more searching and more rewarding than these.

John Quinn

See also reviews by Michael Cookson and Jonathan Woolf



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