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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
The Chopin Collection
Vladimir Horowitz (pianist)
rec. 1928-1989
SONY CLASSICAL 19439704382 [7 CDs: 508 mins]

Vladimir Horowitz’s nervous, near-hysterical Chopin interpretations will be familiar to most readers, many of whom were raised from a young age with these performances. Growing up in a small town, my only choices for Chopin at the local Borders or Barnes and Noble seemed to be numerous repackagings of Horowitz or Rubinstein with the occasional Zimerman or Pollini thrown in. I imprinted on these recordings, but was later thrown a curveball upon hearing the Alfred Cortot 6-CD Chopin set. Cortot changed my perception of Chopin, and I never looked back.

Sony has collected in one place most (but not all) of Horowitz’s Chopin, and the results are mixed. We have four competing versions of the first Scherzo, four of the first Ballade, three of the Polonaise-Fantasie, and so on. The set is in rough chronological order, and contains a mix of live and commercial recordings from the RCA and Columbia/Sony catalogues. Sound quality varies from disc to disc, with the earlier RCA recordings sporting their usual claustrophobic, airless sonority.

Hearing numerous performances of the same repertoire emphasizes how much better Horowitz’s mazurkas and waltzes are than his Scherzi and Ballades. In the smaller pieces, particularly the mazurkas, there is a tender nostalgia in every note, a longing that is heightened by the pianist’s singing tone and sense of vocal line. Horowitz is elegant in the mazurkas where a pianist like Ignaz Friedman is rustic, but it is a valid approach to the music and always a pleasure to hear.

This is not always the case for the larger forms. As a young pianist, I was obsessed with Horowitz’s 1951 account of the first scherzo, a performance in which Horowitz barely touches the right pedal, showcasing the clarity of his fingerwork. Listening now, the recording seems to lurch from moment to moment, a sudden pianissimo here, a pounded chord there, with no overall shape or game plan. The middle section lacks repose, and even the furious coda is noisy without seeming particularly exciting due to the continuous shouted dynamic. The performance is a jaw-dropping display of finger articulation (not to mention the interpolated interlocking octaves!), but musically, it leaves me cold.

The Ballades suffer even more at the hands of Horowitz’s mercurial temperament. He was famous for his interpretations of the first ballade, but the numerous performances here mix moments of insight and beauty with brutal pounding and musical eccentricities. The fourth ballade in the early studio recording is respectful but dull in the opening and middle sections; when Horowitz finally turns on the electricity for the last third of the piece, he takes his foot off the pedal and much of the color leeches out.

I would not want to be without Horowitz’s recordings of the mazurkas and other various small pieces, but I will probably continue to pass on his Ballades, Scherzi, “Funeral March” Sonata, Barcarolle, and other assorted works in which other pianists such as Cortot, Ignace Tiegermann, and Witold Malcuzynski are capable of finding so much magic.

Richard Masters

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52
Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60
Étude Op. 10 No. 3 in E major 'Tristesse'
Étude Op. 10 No. 4 in C sharp minor
Étude Op. 10 No. 5 in G flat major 'Black Key'
Étude Op. 10 No. 6 in E flat minor 'Lacrimosa'
Étude Op. 10 No. 8 in F major
Étude Op. 10 No. 12 in C minor ‘Revolutionary'
Étude Op. 25 No. 1 in A flat major 'Aeolian Harp'
Étude Op. 25 No. 5 in E minor
Étude Op. 25 No. 7 in C sharp minor
Fantasia in F minor, Op. 49
Grande Polonaise Op. 22
Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 29
Impromptu No. 4 in C sharp minor, Op. 66 'Fantaisie-Impromptu'
Mazurka No. 7 in F minor, Op. 7 No. 3
Mazurka No. 13 in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4
Mazurka No. 17 in B flat minor, Op. 24 No. 4
Mazurka No. 19 in B minor, Op. 30 No. 2
Mazurka No. 21 in C sharp minor, Op. 30 No. 4
Mazurka No. 25 in B minor, Op. 33 No. 4
Mazurka No. 29 in A flat major, Op. 41 No. 4
Mazurka No. 32 in C sharp minor, Op. 50 No. 3
Mazurka No. 35 in C minor, Op. 56 No. 3
Mazurka No. 38 in F sharp minor, Op. 59 No. 3
Mazurka No. 40 in F minor, Op. 63 No. 2
Mazurka No. 41 in C sharp minor, Op. 63 No. 3
Nocturne No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2
Nocturne No. 3 in B major, Op. 9 No. 3
Nocturne No. 4 in F major, Op. 15 No. 1
Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2
Nocturne No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 1
Nocturne No. 15 in F minor, Op. 55 No. 1
Nocturne No. 16 in E flat major, Op. 55 No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 'Marche funèbre'
Polonaise No. 1 in C sharp minor, Op. 26 No. 1
Polonaise No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 44
Polonaise No. 6 in A flat major, Op. 53 'Héroïque'
Polonaise No. 7 in A flat major, Op. 61 'Polonaise-fantaisie'
Prelude Op. 28 No. 15 in D flat major ‘Raindrop'
Rondo in E flat major, Op. 16
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31
Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39
Waltz No. 3 in A minor 'Grande Valse Brillante', Op. 34 No. 2
Waltz No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2
Waltz No. 9 in A flat major, Op. 69 No. 1 'Farewell Waltz'

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