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Horowitz in Moscow
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonata in B minor, L.33, Sonata in E, L.23, Sonata in E, L.224
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Sonata in C, K.330
Serghey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Prelude in G, op.32/5, Prelude in G sharp minor, op.32/12
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Etude in C sharp minor, op.2/1, Etude in D sharp minor op.8/12
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Impromptu in B flat, D.935/3
SCHUBERT trans. Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Valse Caprice no.6 from "Soirées de Vienne"
LISZT

Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, from "Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année: Italie".
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Mazurka in C sharp minor, op.30/4, Mazurka in F minor, op.7/3, Polonaise in A flat, op.53
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Traumerei, from "Kinderszenen"
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)

Etincelles, op.36/6
RACHMANINOV

Polka de VR
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
rec. Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, 1986
Introduction and interval includes various footage, interviews etc.
SONY SVD 64545 [104:00]

 

It hardly seems twenty years ago that I was watching, open-mouthed, the television relay of Horowitzís historic return to Moscow. Though the present film version has been readily available over the years on video and then DVD I purposely didnít see it, preferring to keep the event as a memory. For better or worse I received a copy a few weeks ago as a birthday present so now I have been able to compare reality with the cherished memory.

The memory was a very vivid one, and for the most part everything was exactly as I remembered it. Horowitz immediately captivates the ear with his floating tone and intimate sonorities in the first of the Scarlatti sonatas, he is his inimitable impish self in the second and age has not robbed him of his brilliance in the third. Also exactly as I had remembered it is the image of complete calm with which he tackles even the most demanding pieces later in the programme. A few shots from a camera presumably hidden inside the piano show just his face and shoulders, with neither fingers nor keyboard. So motionless is he, you would hardly believe he is actually playing at all, let alone music that calls for great virtuosity. Itís all in the fingers, and makes an interesting comparison with the recent Michelangeli films from the early 1960s which tell a similar tale.

But memory is curiously selective. Glorious childhood rambles through the woods are remembered without the stinging-nettles, my first idyllic camping holiday in Scotland at the age of 8 is remembered without the clouds of midges which beset me on later visits and which must have been there really. And so it is here. I remembered the Scarlatti, the Rachmaninov, the Scriabin, the Schubert/Liszt, the Liszt, the Chopin and the first two encores. I could swear the Rachmaninov Polka was not given on the television but I do remember him holding up three fingers to tell the public they were going to get three encores and no more. But when, after the well-remembered Scarlatti, a Mozart sonata began, my mind drew a complete blank. Even as the performance began, it struck no answering chord. And here, alas, are the stinging-nettles and the midges. While marvelling at Horowitzís lightness of touch, itís just too rococo, even flippant, to be taken seriously.

The Rachmaninov G major prelude begins surprisingly aggressively - I hadnít remembered this either - and achieves the serenity and poise of the composerís own version only later. The G sharp minor is terrific although perhaps only Rachmaninov himself is able to tell us, in his playing, what this mysterious, tormented piece cost him to compose. In Scriabin Horowitz is surely unassailable.

The other blank in my memory was the Schubert Impromptu. On Horowitzís side, the composerís 2/2 rather than 4/4 time signature would seem to imply a faster tempo than we usually hear, but gone is any trace of Schubertian melancholy, its place taken by the merely pretty and decorative. I have had occasion to remark in other reviews recently that an understanding of Schubert is a post-war acquisition and Horowitz learnt his trade long before that. Quite frankly, I donít think he had the faintest idea what this music was about.

Schubert seen through Lisztís eyes is a different matter and the Viennese confectionery has superb elegance and bonhomie. Lisztís own Petrarch Sonnet has all the passion and grand manner required and his Chopin, apart from a momentary technical lapse during the Polonaise, is as richly communicative as ever. Perhaps some earlier sound-only recordings of these particular pieces are finer still but itís marvellous actually to see him playing them.

Also well remembered are the shots around the hall of members of the public with tears dripping from their eyes during the first encore, "Traumerei". Beautiful as the performance evidently is, there must have been a special speaking quality to his tone which does not entirely survive mechanical reproduction. At least Sony donít repeat RAIís mistake of twenty years ago of attributing "Etincelles" (scintillatingly played) to Mussorgsky!

The programme is extended with some preliminary scenes Ė Horowitzís piano being packed for travel back in New York, for example Ė and some snatches of interviews during the interval, most of it fairly inconsequential but again, itís nice to have a glimpse of the great man offstage and to hear him speaking, mainly in English, his heavily Russian accent undiminished by the many years of exile.

Am I dwelling more on my memories than actually reviewing the disc? Well, a DVD conserving a complete concert by one of the greatest of all pianists, with the added emotion of his return to his homeland after 61 years, doesnít need pushing from me. I just want to make one last consideration. My memory has been tested against the documentary evidence and has proved oddly selective. So what about pianists from further back in the past, whom we can only know through peopleís memories of them. Do these memories, too, exclude the stinging-nettles and the midges?

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

 



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