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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Sonata no.2 in b flat minor op.35 [21:19]
Polonaise in A op.40/1 [04:50]
Polonaise in f sharp minor op.44 [10:15]
Polonaise in A flat op.53 [06:22]
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat op.61 [13:19]
Fantaisie-Impromptu in c sharp minor op.66 [04:30]
Scherzo no.1 in b minor op.20 [08:24]
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
rec. Columbia 30th Street Studios, NY: 18, 24 April, 9, 14 May 1962, (op. 35), 14 November 1963 (op. 20) 4 May 1971, (op. 61); Carnegie Hall: 17 April 1966 (op. 66) 2 January, 1 February 1968 (op. 53) 6 July 1972, (op. 44)
SONY CLASSICAL 82876 78769 2 [68:59]



Seasoned pianophiles with a special interest in Horowitz may be raising their eyebrows at the recording information above, which is exactly as it appears in the booklet. The only recording here which is self-evidently live – there’s a cough and a barrage of applause breaks in on the closing chord – is that of op.61, which is claimed as a studio recording. Or were the Columbia 30th Street Studios used as a recital venue? Nothing to stop CBS from hiring the Carnegie Hall to use as a studio, I suppose, either. Except that an LP called “Horowitz Live at the Carnegie Hall” (CBS M 45829) had the First Ballade and a number of non-Chopin items from 1st February 1968 and there was certainly an audience for those. Op. 61 and what seems to be the same op.53 – but the sound is radically different here – appeared on CBS 75969 (LP), published in 1971 but with no specific information. Of the unidentified op.40/1 I can only say that the same performance appeared on CBS 76307 (LP), pub. 1974 and 1979 but again with no further information.
 
Well never mind, Horowitz is always Horowitz.
 
I am not sure that mixing live and studio Horowitz is a good idea, though. As op.61 shows, with an audience hanging onto every note, he could be very capricious, twisting the music this way and that. Since he was a fantastic communicator it was surely unforgettable to those who were there. I’m sure I’d have joined in the roars of applause that greet it if I’d been in the audience. Heard on record with a score in front of me I found myself alternately convinced and puzzled. Ultimately this longish piece is made to seem rambling and I prefer a more symphonic approach. Some time ago I reviewed a later performance on BMG (74321 68008 2) and felt that by 1982 Horowitz was falling into self-parody. Listening to the two side by side I now feel they’re much of a muchness. I must say it’s interesting to notice what remained constant and what was evidently invented for that particular occasion.
 
I think, though, that Horowitz knew a studio performance had to be different. In the Second Sonata he is still intensely personal in his voicings and dynamics, but in a more responsible sort of way. The structure of the work is conveyed as well as the details. His range of tone and his fine dynamic shadings are astonishing. The central sections of the middle movements, which can both seem interminable strolls around the mulberry bush in the wrong hands, become kaleidoscopic displays of variegated colours. The scherzo makes its point, not by the pace, which is fairly moderate for Horowitz, but by the dialogue between the voices. In the finale the winds blow over the grave with chilling clarity. There are too many incredible performances of this work – such as Michelangeli’s for Italian television, now on DVD and reviewed by me here – to claim any single one as the greatest ever. This one is awesomely great, nonetheless.
 
Another particularly great performance is that of the op.44 Polonaise, where the countless details illuminated by Horowitz do not prevent him from revealing its grand structure as well. The op.53 Polonaise, on the other hand, does sometimes seem fussy in its detailing. The version from his famous “Return to Moscow” recital, in spite of its fallibility – on account of which it was issued only on video/DVD, not CD – has a more colossal grandeur to it. The op.40/1 Polonaise and the Fantaisie-Impromptu are surprisingly straightforward, just good unmannered playing. You could probably Hattify these two performances and not get discovered immediately.
 
Arguably, if a spot of Hattification were applied to the Scherzo to bring the outer sections down to a reasonable tempo, our nerves would be the better for it. This performance was famously dismissed by Sviatoslav Richter as “awful”. One is reminded of certain performances by Horowitz’s father-in-law Toscanini where, though the notes are all played, the human ear just can’t register them as they fly by and the speed becomes self-defeating. Angry banging accents dominate while the 8th-notes buzz around them like a horde of angry hornets. But I hope Richter duly acknowledged the great beauty of the central section, calm and beautifully voiced.
 
So as I said, Horowitz is always Horowitz. If you have to limit yourself to one disc of Horowitz playing Chopin, get this one rather than the BMG I mentioned, where the alternation of 1950s recordings with very late ones makes an unsatisfying sequence. Better still, get all the Horowitz you can. The skimpy notes are taken from a previous 1987 issue. Are Sony that hard up?
 
Christopher Howell
 


 


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