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Mieczysław Horszowski (piano)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita no.2 in C minor BWV.826 [21:38]*
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata in B flat K.570 [16:21]*
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in C sharp minor op.27/1 [05:02]*
Nocturne in D flat op.27/2 [06:10]*
Mazurka in C op.24/2 [02:29]*
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Children’s Corner [16:42]**
Mieczysław Horszowski (piano)
rec. 13 June 1983*, 9 June 1984**, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4203-2 [68:57]

 


Mieczysław Horszowski’s greatest public acclaim came when he was a child prodigy and it was incredible that a child so young could play so well, and in the last decade of his 95-year career, when it was incredible that a man so old could still play so well. In between that he was always “there”, frequently collaborating with the greatest musicians of the day – Casals and the Budapest Quartet come to mind – and he was one of the few solo pianists who could get on with Toscanini. As far as the UK is concerned, that’s about it, although I’m amazed to find him not listed in the “Grove Concise Dictionary of Music”. Doubtless his name meant much more in the United States, where he lived from 1940. Even so, as a solo pianist he never seems to have had a long-term contract with a major company, though an Amazon search shows that he did set down quite a bit for Vanguard and other smaller companies.

A “pianists’ pianist” and a “musicians’ pianist”, I get the idea he was very much his own man. By which I mean that the present issue is not to be considered as evidence of past performing styles – it shows that his Chopin was quite different from Rubinstein’s or Horowitz’s and that his Debussy was quite different from Gieseking’s. A tendency to split chords and to anticipate his left hand, together with a total unconcern for double-dotting and ornamentation generally in the Bach, suggests a pianist of yesteryear, but his style is his own.

At the time of these two Aldeburgh recitals he was around ninety and it has to be admitted that his fingerwork, while mostly still very spry, slips the odd note here and there. At a few points he has memory lapses and invents his way back onto the rails, though he does this so convincingly that I doubt if anyone without a score would notice. Under pressure from full textures his tone can harden, most notably in the last movement of the Bach. For some reason the recording itself seems closer in this work and this particular piece emerges as rather heavily aggressive.

However, Horszowski still has a great deal to offer. 21st century ears will find the opening of the Sinfonia rather strange, shorn as it is of the baroque pomposity associated with the “French overture” style. There’s not a double dot in sight. Yet the tonal shading and expressive freedom he finds in the following andante and again in the Allemande are beacons that can shine in all ages. The Courante has a wonderful rhythmic spirit, though with suggestions that the textures might have been clearer still a decade or so earlier. This Bach is also bedevilled by someone suffering from bronchial problems that were evidently in a terminal phase, for he is no longer there to bother us in the Mozart.

The glory of the Mozart is its finale, given with a simplicity yet a sense of joyous wonder that must surely bring a smile to the dullest person’s face. Elsewhere, while he certainly does not romanticize the music – you could say he humanizes it – he shows a rare freedom and spontaneity.

In the Chopin his right hand sings sweetly and with apparent total independence from the left. Actually, the balance between the hands favours the left hand more than one might expect. The ear is drawn to the melody by its character, rather than by the fact that it is stronger in tone. This lends the music a degree of contrapuntal involvement we do not always hear. Op.27/2 is totally successful and wonderfully affecting. Its beauty lies in its truthfulness rather than any deliberate shading of the tone for pianistic effect, such as Michelangeli gave us. Op.27/1 is only slightly less beautiful because the pianist seems less in command in the dramatic middle section. Again, one would wish to hear him playing this at least a decade earlier.

The Mazurka is quite extraordinary, totally unlike any other interpretation known to me. It just trips along gaily and gracefully, without any attempt at melancholy except in just a short episode which is made to appear parenthetic. I think I would always prefer an interpreter who seeks out the more yearning aspects of these pieces, but I would be fascinated to hear more mazurkas from Horszowski. How, for example, did he deal with the infinitely doleful op.17/4?

In the Debussy, Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum is a little heavy but Jimbo’s Lullaby is fascinating. Modern performers – Rogé or Thollier for example – tend to seek out the melancholy in this piece at a slow tempo. Gieseking was a little quicker, finding more of a droll humour in it. Horszowski is quicker still, expressing a sort of childlike wonder. He is not so refined as Gieseking in Serenade for the Doll – I don’t know of anyone who is – but again, it’s the sense of childlike wonder, the sheer artlessness which strikes you. The same may be said of the rest of the suite, though these movements were the two highlights for me.

There has been some debate as to whether today’s pianists have not become to anonymous, influenced by the idea that the interpreter should merely “serve” the music. Well, I don’t think Horszowski imagined he was doing anything but serving the music and I don’t detect any attempt to interpolate his own personality. The lesson of his playing is that, if you’ve got a personality it will shine through in everything you do. I feel sure all lovers of the piano will find much to enjoy and much food for thought in this souvenir of a pianist who carved out a quiet little niche for himself in a world dominated by the likes of Rubinstein and Horowitz. I suspect, though, that we would need to look among recordings a couple of decades older to appreciate his full capacities.

Christopher Howell


 


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