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.
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major Emperor
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.
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.
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.
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.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.