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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata, op.57, in F Minor "Appassionata"*
Allegro assai [9:54]; Andante con moto [5:27]; Allegro ma non troppo [8:14]
Piano Sonata, op.27 No.2, in C-Sharp Minor "Moonlight"
Adagio sostenuto [6:28]; Allegretto [2:06]; Presto agitato [7:04]
Piano Sonata, op.53, in C "Waldstein"
Allegro con brio [10:28]; Introduzione: Adagio molto [4:01]; Rondo: Allegretto moderato [9:42]
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
*Rec. May 14, 18, 25, 1959, Carnegie Hall, New York City; May 10-11, June 5, 1956 at the home of Mr. Horowitz. ADD
BMG RCA RED SEAL CLASSIC LIBRARY 8287662311 2 [63:50]


If ever there was a "pianists’ pianist" it must surely have been Vladimir Horowitz (1904-1989). Born in Kiev, he originally wanted to be a composer but supported himself with increasingly successful concerts of piano playing, first in Russia then abroad, finally settling in the US following his marriage to Toscanini’s daughter Wanda. He was a dynamo from an early age and in 1924, when still only 20, he played no less than 25 separate recitals in Leningrad alone, without repeating a single work! Once abroad the legend was truly born and he could command audiences of 3,000; in Paris the police had to be called, such was the hysteria his concerts could give rise to.

Whilst Horowitz was one of the last remaining representatives of romanticism, sharing equal billing with the composer, he also liked to present himself as a simple, even humble, servant of his art. He was very unusual in that there was nothing he would not play in private, though his programmes generally featured his core repertoire of Chopin, Schumann, Scriabin and Liszt. In addition he liked to play Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Barber. Scarlatti was another to whose music Horowitz brought an illuminating clarity that was almost breathtaking. It may strike one as surprising, therefore, that Beethoven in not amongst this pantheon of greats. It seems that during sabbaticals he took as respite from his punishing schedule he explored repertoire that, according to the liner notes, "may have lacked dazzling crowd-pleasing qualities but offered artistic substance that nourished his most profound musical instincts". It was during one such period that he immersed himself in the music of Beethoven from which sessions these recordings emerged. Incidentally, how strange that Beethoven’s piano sonatas could ever have been considered to have lacked anything!

These versions of the Appassionata, Moonlight and Waldstein sonatas were recorded in 1956 and 1959. They are extremely sensitive performances that were evidently meticulously planned. Even the pauses are telling. There is no doubt that of the three sonatas the "Appassionata" particularly suited Horowitz’s temperament. Whilst Rudolf Serkin described his performance of Chopin’s C Minor Ballade as being "like a fireball exploding", one critic describing his American debut called him "that unleashed tornado from the steppes". Many of his performances saw him play other pianists "under the table" and his huge energy is especially evident in this performance of the "Appassionata" – just listen to the final, closing bars to appreciate his interpretation of the frenzy Beethoven was depicting. It is all perfectly fitting for this sonata and will repay countless listenings.

However, I did not feel the same way about his playing of the "Moonlight" which I regard as one of his mannered performances in which, for me at least, he seems to lose sight of the overall structure and the result is a rendition of a work that is so familiar yet played in a such a way as to be at odds with what you’re expecting to hear. The opening movement appears rather ponderous, even leaden whilst the second loses the fluidity I enjoy, each note separated with no feeling of flowing that makes this movement so attractive to me. The final movement Horowitz takes at breakneck speed, the notes tumbling into each other in a welter that loses their individual value and instead become a barrage that I found both unattractive and annoying. Perhaps I will change my mind over time, but like most people I’m sure, I have a benchmark performance in my mind when I listen to something as familiar as this work (I have been listening to it for nigh on sixty years) and this fell short of that.

The opening of the "Waldstein" is once again taken too fast for my liking though he does slow down somewhat later in the movement. Horowitz’s energy and relentless drive are shown to good effect from around five minutes into the first movement - when power is required he can certainly deliver it but it’s knowing when to control rather unleash it that I sometimes feel lets him down. Another example of rushing the music comes in the closing seconds of the final movement – it’s almost as if he were aware that he had to catch a bus! Generally speaking, however, I enjoyed the performance of this great work and shall listen to it again and again.

I’m sure it would be a rewarding experience to hear all of Horowitz’s performances of Beethoven sonatas and I look forward to doing so as there is no doubt he was a supreme master of pianism and I certainly don’t hold with the opinion of some critics that said he played everything as if it were Liszt!

Steve Arloff



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