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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]

Naxos Historical have plundered the vaults of RCA Victor to release these fascinating accounts of two war-horses performed by legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989). The enigmatic Horowitz himself said that he was born in Kiev in the Ukraine but some sources have given Berdichev, Russia as his birthplace. His cousin Natasha Saitzoff, in a 1991 interview, stated that all four children were born in Kiev, corroborating his story. After his Berlin and American débuts in the late 1920s, Horowitz had a unique career involving many triumphs and four high-profile periods of retirement from the concert stage. His last performances were given in the mid-1980s. He died an American citizen in New York in 1989.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Emperor

Apparently at the beginning of the 1930s Horowitz only had five piano concertos in his repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s First, Rachmaninov’s Third, Brahms’s Second and both the concertos by Liszt. Horowitz rarely performed Beethoven throughout his long career. However, in November of 1932 he received an invitation from Toscanini to perform Beethoven’s Emperor, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in April of the following year. Horowitz did not know the work and had to learn it specifically for the performance. He only rarely played the work in public, but in 1952, with the introduction of the LP, he recorded the work, contained here, with Fritz Reiner and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. The esteemed New York City venue served as a recording studio; it was not recorded during a live performance. Horowitz is quoted as saying that Reiner liked his playing, ‘He said that this was an aristocratic Emperor; that everybody else pounded it out.’ It is true that this is a much more ‘classical’ reading of the Emperor than one would expect from Horowitz. It has clarity and poise, and in this new transfer Horowitz’s beauty and variety of tone can at last be heard. Contemporary critics were rather dismissive of Horowitz’s recording, noting his technical mastery but complaining about the sound quality more than anything.

The Emperor was composed in 1809 in the most terribly testing conditions imaginable as Vienna was in turmoil and under siege. Napoleon’s armies had reached the gates of Vienna and soon the city was suffering heavy artillery bombardment and the imminent threat of occupation by enemy forces. During some of this time Beethoven temporarily abandoned his house on the ramparts of the city and took refuge in a cellar in his brother’s house. Furthermore, his virtuoso pianist career had finished owing to his profound deafness; it is highly unlikely that he ever performed the work Emperor in public. None of this abject misery is evident in the score which is one of Beethoven’s boldest, most innovative and most heroic works. Czerny performed the Emperor in a charity concert in Vienna, but the first public performance had to wait until the next year, when it was heard in Leipzig in November 1811. It was not an instant success, and only became popular in the latter part of the 19th century when it was taken up by the great virtuoso soloists following in Liszt’s footsteps. This three movement work was not performed in public until November of 1811, in Leipzig, when Friedrich Schneider was the soloist. Beethoven was present at the first Viennese performance given by Carl Czerny on 12 February 1812. It is not known who first named the work as the ‘Emperor’ but the epithet has stuck.

On this Naxos Historical release Horowitz performs the Emperor with incredible dexterity and a enviable lightness of touch, together with a fluid and silvery tone. The orchestra are in tremendous form. Horowitz’s interpretation in the opening movement allegro is highly romantic and exhilarating. There is heavenly playing in the adagio in what is one of the quicker versions although Horowitz slows the tempo right down at various points. In the closing movement, which is the weakest reading of the three, I would have preferred extra passion and drama from the soloist. The sound restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has done a fine job cleaning up the master tapes. 

The catalogue is packed with versions of this Beethoven masterwork and there are several worthy contenders for the top recommendation. My all-time favourite version is the famous 1961 Berlin account from Wilhelm Kempff with the Berlin Philharmonic under Ferdinand Leitner on ‘The Originals’ series from Deutsche Grammophon 447 402-2. I also highly rate the renowned 1957 Vienna account from Clifford Curzon and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Hans Knappertsbusch on ‘Decca Legends’ series 467 126-2. Another classic recording that I greatly admire is the 1955 London account from Solomon with the Philharmonia under Herbert Menges on Testament SBT 1221. This exceptionally crowded market for modern digital versions has many recommendable candidates. Of the numerous modern digital recordings my first choice would be the celebrated account from Alfred Brendel with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle on Philips 468 783-2. Also worthy of consideration is the critically acclaimed interpretation from Stephen Kovacevich with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis on Philips 422 482-2.

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor

At the beginning of Horowitz’s career the mighty Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 became his calling card and a vehicle for his dazzling virtuosity. Horowitz performed it with many of the most famous conductors in the world: Karl Muck; Serge Koussevitzky; Frederick Stock; Fritz Reiner; Walter Damrosch; Pierre Monteux; Willem Mengelberg and then recording it for HMV with Albert Coates in December 1930. Now available on Naxos 8.110696 this interpretation was the first of Horowitz’s three commercial recordings of the work. On this release is the account that Horowitz recorded the second time in 1951. Compared to the 1930 recording, by 1951 Horowitz’s playing was said to be far more frenetic and highly-strung.

Rachmaninov composed the work largely at Ivanovka, the Russian ancestral estate of the Rachmaninov family, during the summer of 1909; although its conception probably dates back a few years. The composer visited the United States of America the same year for the first of his many concert tours and premièred the work there at the New Theatre in New York City with the Symphony Society of New York under Walter Damrosch.

The concerto marks a new phase in Rachmaninov’s writing. It has been said that he embeds his emotion more deeply into the music and his solo piano writing is more integrated with the orchestra. There is little competition between the soloist and the orchestra but rather support for each other. Incidentally, for several years the listeners on a popular UK classical radio station have been voting for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto as their all-time favourite classical music work. Despite the tremendous popularity of the Second Concerto many Rachmaninov aficionados consider the Third to be the finest of the four.   

In this version the playing never reaches anywhere near the heights of many of the top versions. The interpretation from Horowitz comes across as showy and mannered, rather lacking in weight and vivacity. Mark Obert-Thorn has made improvements to the sound quality which was savagely criticised at the time of the original release. However, the recording balance between soloist and orchestra still provides problems together with an uncomfortable harsh tone at times from the piano. The orchestral support is top class.

Of the modern digital versions my premier recommendation for the Rachmaninov is the thrilling live version from Martha Argerich, with the Berlin RSO under Riccardo Chailly on Philips 446 673-2. I have heard an unofficial recording of a simply awe-inspiring interpretation from the maverick Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov with the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra under the Finnish conductor Tuomas Ollila. I have been informed that Sokolov’s performance was recorded at a BBC Proms in 1995 but I am unsure if that is accurate. There are some sound problems which may provide the reason for its unavailability in the catalogues. I have been a long-time admirer of the account from Tamás Vásáry and the London Symphony Orchestra under Yuri Ahronovitch. This well worn Deutsche Grammophon record 2535 493 from my vinyl collection is now available on compact disc Deutsche Grammophon E4297152.

Superb liner notes from Jonathan Summers and Mark Obert-Thorn has done a fine job with the sound. However there are many more highly recommendable accounts of these wonderful works available in the catalogues. It is good to have these historical accounts available but in truth this is a disc that will really only appeal to Horowitz fans.

Michael Cookson



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