Vladimir Horowitz: Our Contemporary

Michelle Assay
Friday, January 10, 2020

Michelle Assay celebrates the life and career of the controversial American pianist 30 years after his death – and makes a case for his relevance today

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Carnegie Hall: Horowitz receives a standing ovation on his triumphant return to the stage in 1965, after a 12-year absence (photography: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

‘King of kings’, ‘Titan of the piano’, ‘The Ukrainian tiger who burnt bright’ … Did any pianist ever attract more adulatory labels than Vladimir Horowitz? I myself felt their power when I first fell in love with his playing through the 1985 documentary film Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic. At the time, I was a child in a country where classical music was banned (even films and recordings were smuggled in only at the risk of a jail sentence); it was the sense of abandon and joy that Horowitz conveyed that made me crave a lifelong connection with the piano.

Now, 30 years after his death, he is still regarded by many living pianists as ‘one of their gods’, as Nelson Goerner puts it to me. For him, too, an encounter with Horowitz accelerated his own progress. Yet such adulation can be a double-edged sword, since it generates resistance and an urge to find faults, as well as hyperbolic expectations, which in the case of Horowitz placed intolerable pressure on his already fragile mental health (which led to four periods of absence from the stage). In any case, testimonies from some of today’s leading pianists and two of his pupils, as well as relistening to many hours of his recordings, have motivated me to propose a new label: ‘Horowitz – our contemporary’, inspired by Jan Kott’s seminal book Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (1961). I am not claiming that Horowitz was a Shakespeare of the piano – though I sometimes wonder how that label escaped his worshippers – but just that as Shakespeare’s themes have contemporary resonances that remain compelling, so do Horowitz’s life and career.

Just as William Shakespeare’s themes have contemporary resonances that remain compelling, so do Horowitz’s life and career

Fame and well-being, for example. His name appears in a recent article in The American Journal of Psychiatry as an example of a celebrity who was treated ‘successfully’ with electroconvulsive therapy. Music and physical well-being, too, albeit that here the link is mainly through his pupils. I interview Byron Janis and Gary Graffman, both of whom studied with Horowitz, and each recounts touching stories of their battles with physical obstacles during their careers as concert pianists. Janis, in particular, has since been doing remarkable work for musicians with arthritis.

Delving into Horowitz’s official and unofficial biographies reveals further life issues – closet homosexuality and even a potential feminist perspective if we think of his wife Wanda (née Toscanini) caught between dominating male musical personalities. Nationalism forces its way into the picture too. Ukraine has been active in reclaiming its Kiev-born son, even if in 1903, the year of his birth, an independent Ukraine did not exist and Horowitz, like Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Gogol, most probably had a pan-Slavic or even Russian identity; he certainly called Russia the country of his birth in interviews around the time of his historic 1986 return visit to Moscow. Yet I myself used to refer to him as one reason why I had chosen to study at the Kiev Conservatoire. Horowitz was a student there only until the age of 16 or 17. Nevertheless, nowadays Kiev prides itself in hosting an international piano competition in his memory. I mischievously asked Yuri Zilberman – the man behind the Kiev Horowitz foundation and an active Horowitzologist and adulator – about David Dubal’s claim that Horowitz had stressed in his will that he wanted no competition in his name. The defence was not only that Dubal had been a member of the jury but also that the title of the competition says ‘in the memory of’, and hence Horowitz would have approved. Who knows? In 2020, the competition will celebrate 25 years since its inception.

‘Titan of the piano’: Horowitz, pictured in the 1930s (photo: Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy Stock Photo)

Even before he won the third prize in the junior section of the 1997 competition, Sasha Grynyuk was an admirer of Horowitz, thanks to listening to recordings collected by his brother, Alexei, also a pianist and winner at the next competition (1999). Sasha remembers how much the competition meant to him: ‘not so much for the results but for the whole atmosphere of somehow being connected with Horowitz’s persona – having his portrait above the piano, the medal with his profile on it, and so on’.

The insatiable appetite of the media has hardly diminished since Horowitz’s death in 1989. Did he himself enjoy the attention lavished on him? Yes, and no. It meant that he could ask for the highest fees and make diva-ish demands. The media and Harold Schonberg’s biography (1992) reported at length on his foibles when it came to travel, hotel rooms (with video collections to keep him amused) and diet (not least during his tour to Russia, when a ‘team asparagus’ was assigned to meet his vegetable requirements). But the attention could be merciless. A 1977 interview is painful to watch not just because Horowitz appears to be heavily medicated, his speech more slurred than it would be even just before his death, but mainly for the puppetmaster attitude of the interviewer, forcing him to play The Stars and Stripes Forever even when he protests that he can’t remember it. Did the media have a role in his career breaks? Probably so – alongside other factors such as the loss of his daughter, Sonia (1934-75). In any case, the media certainly benefited from his unpredictability. The historic Carnegie Hall return concert of 1965, for instance, as moving and powerful as it was, was a carefully calculated commercial operation, playing to the hunger for the legendary artist whose every concert might be his last. Horowitz himself would often play along and add to his many titles: ‘priest of art’ (in an interview with Norman Pellegrini for his return to Chicago in 1986) or ‘ambassador of peace’ (on the occasion of his historic return to Russia, also in 1986).

He was, at least on the surface, a natural showman and entertainer. These are now artistic qualities sought after by programmers of major concert and opera houses desperately seeking to attract a diverse audience by supposedly democratising art music. These qualities as found in Horowitz have provoked many critical debates. Shortly after the pianist’s death, Joseph Horowitz (no relation) scorned him for being ‘attuned to people: players, listeners, technicians, music-businessmen’. His article ‘The Transformations of Horowitz’ (1990) was an attempt to critique one-sidedly positive views; but its correctives were themselves just as one-sided. Its reference to the 1987 documentary Horowitz Plays Mozart was intended to illustrate and deride the pianist’s flamboyance, but in fact its account of his behaviour in the film serves only to bring out the charm of a self-mocking old man (Horowitz died two years later). The film contains a poetic interpretation of the A major Piano Concerto, K488, and has some fascinating remarks from a master who has no need for self-censorship: ‘Today there is a crisis of composers not of pianists,’ and, ‘I love that [Mozart] more than any other music. I understand this music not in classic way but completely free … but in good taste. Casals told me you must play Mozart like Chopin and Chopin like Mozart.’

Since then, Joseph Horowitz has made some concessions (in his 2010 article ‘Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz: A Recantation’), thanks to his son Bernie’s adoration of the pianist. I wonder whether he has seen Richard Taruskin’s 1993 article ‘Why Do They All Hate Horowitz?’ (reprinted in his book of collected polemics, The Danger of Music, 2010), which took aim not only at him but also at Michael Steinberg’s entry for the pianist in the 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, with its harsh closing statement that Horowitz ‘illustrates that an astounding instrumental gift carries no guarantee about musical understanding’. Before his final comment, Steinberg, seeking to illustrate that Horowitz ‘conceives of interpretation not as the reification of the composer’s idea, but as an essentially independent activity’, singled out his take on Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’ from Kinderszenen, deploring the way ‘he places the high points anywhere except where Schumann placed them’. Taruskin batted back the ‘mean insult’, pointing out that if Steinberg was referring to the musical direction of the melody, all Horowitz does is to treat the longer note at the end of the crescendo arpeggio as the echo of the shorter preceding one, as if from a dream. Actually, Horowitz does much more with this deceptively simple piece. He constantly varies the texture and brings out inner voices at unexpected places; and, above all, he varies his interpretation from performance to performance. Steinberg’s 1980 New Grove entry was replaced in the 2001 edition by a text by Schonberg that goes to the opposite extreme, allowing scarcely a hint of negative comment.

‘He never did things just to be interesting … he always had a profound reason. Horowitz was the poet of the keyboard’

Nelson Goerner

Taruskin also took the opportunity to deride Tim Page, whose 1992 assessment (in the New Republic) of Horowitz’s pianism and in particular Schonberg’s biography provided him with another soft target. For Taruskin, Page’s subsequent toning down of his rhetoric was a victory and a result of his ‘exposure of [Page’s] pretension’. But Taruskin was overlooking two important factors. First of all, as Page himself tells me, he would have written his article differently today; not because of Taruskin, but because he is no longer a thirty-something-year-old establishing himself. Then there was the fatigue among some critics from constant exposure to Horowitz in his Americanised media image. Page’s article opens with the complaint that ‘everything Horowitz did was reported as news’. He was goaded by such gushing verbiage as this by Schonberg in the aftermath of Horowitz’s death: ‘When Vladimir Horowitz played, he generated electricity, thunder and lightning and displayed demonic technical control that always threatened to get out of hand but never did.’ Page still prefers other pianists in some of the repertoire for which Horowitz is revered; he has not recanted from his view that, ‘There are times when Horowitz pecks and pokes at the piano in a way that shatters melodies into what seem so many shards of glass.’ But he also revels, as he did in his original article, in Horowitz’s advocacy of Kabalevsky, the simplicity of his approach to Clementi, and his inimitable interpretation of Barber’s Piano Sonata.

Taruskin’s characteristically self-congratulatory postscript takes immense pride in thankful letters from Horowitz lovers such as Janis and Schonberg. Hardly objective testimony, it might be thought. I wonder how Taruskin would react to, say, Alfred Brendel’s objections (as reported to me) to Horowitz’s ‘exaggeration and crassness of expression’ or his ‘mannerism of starting a phrase with a bang and ending it with a whimper’. As Brendel observes, ‘There is the belief of some present-day listeners that his performance of the Liszt Sonata represents a reincarnation of Liszt’s spirit. After playing many of Liszt’s works and reading through the complete Liszt literature in German and English, I think otherwise.’

Horowitz at home in New York, just over a year before his death at 86 (photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Horowitz’s 1977 account of the B minor Sonata, from his period of heavy medical sedation, is indeed splashy and not to all tastes. Nevertheless, Taruskin was surely right to view Steinberg’s objections in the broader context of the search for so-called authenticity, which had been gathering pace since the 1950s. Issues surrounding the sacredness of the musical text and the role of the performer as a mere transmitter of the composer’s supposed intentions remain central to the Horowitz controversy.

There is no doubt that, as Benjamin Grosvenor tells me, ‘Horowitz dared to dare. He had singular, preternatural technical resources and a freewheeling imagination that saw beyond any standard model.’ Take, for instance, his enthralling 1947 recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Horowitz intervenes gleefully in the text, adding ornaments, reinforcements and acrobatic embellishments, some of which are enough to make any pianist-listener’s eyes water. Is this irresistible (it is for me) or inexcusable? Norma Fisher explains it in a balanced way: ‘My adoration of Horowitz goes back to my youth … his extraordinary pianistic skills, always there as a shining example of the impossible being made possible! However, as my own “taste buds” and stylistic awareness developed, I started to wonder about the thinking behind this force of nature. My own concern for duty and responsibility to the score and spirit of the composer started to disturb my listening to him with ease, and on many occasions I would find myself offended by his impermeable subjectivity. With age and experience, and the best will in the world, I still find myself questioning his licence, and long for his phenomenal pianism to be more deferential.’ Yet she feels moved to add: ‘As artists, we are bound to be guided by our soul, and there is no question as to the beauty of his. I’d just like a little more “head ruling heart”!’

That would certainly not be a Horowitz motto, at least according to him: ‘Mind and the intellect are the guide of the emotion but [they are] not enough. You’re not a typewriting machine. You have to hear what the composer has to say. Intellect is the controller but not the guide; keep your feelings free.’ Nor, it has to be said, was he ever in search of technical perfection. Graffman rightly remarks that in ‘those days’ wrong notes didn’t matter as much as today. In The Last Romantic, Horowitz shouts: ‘I don’t want perfection! I am not Heifetz; I’m Horowitz.’

That these issues are very much alive and kicking is indicated by the Challenging Performance project, which aims to free classical music from constraints of fidelity to the text, asking the pointed question: why, when modern Shakespeare productions can be so varied, are modern performances of classical music so constrained by the text? Just as theatre producers may legitimately employ new means in order to recreate something like Shakespeare’s original shock value, so Horowitz surprises his audience with his innovative departures and creative modifications. Stephen Hough, for one, fully endorses such interventions: ‘For me, Horowitz is one of the few instrumentalists whose playing seems to reach beyond being a mere recreator and moves towards genius.’ Symptoms of that are, he says, ‘his rhythm: tight as a drum in its control yet endlessly flexible in imagination; his sound: the fullest range of colours from water pastel to fierce, blazing oil; his pianism: virtuosic to the nth degree yet with enough vulnerability and danger always to be exciting; the keen focus of his musical vision: even when we might not like what he does we’re compelled to engage with it.’

With conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in a still from the 1987 film Horowitz Plays Mozart (photo: Bridgeman images)

And there, surely, is the key. For all his unpredictability moment to moment, and his evolution from decade to decade, Horowitz never leaves the listener indifferent. For Goerner, his interpretations of Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Humoresque are examples of ‘sky-high, incandescent music-making’. Indeed, his mercurial Humoresque has been praised even by those who are Horowitz sceptics (including Brendel). His instinctive volcanic energy is as natural a fit for Schumann’s mood swings as it is for Scriabin. For Charles Rosen, his range of affinities was actually limited to two styles: ‘the way he played Scarlatti and the way he played Scriabin’. Certainly, his performance of Scriabin’s Ninth Sonata was invariably riveting, and that of the C sharp minor Étude on Scriabin’s own piano and in the presence of the composer’s daughter during his return trip to Russia could hardly be matched for emotional power. Horowitz always loved to retell the story of playing for Scriabin as a 10-year-old. Nor did he ever tire of praising Rachmaninov; for many his 1930 account of the Piano Concerto No 3 with Albert Coates is unsurpassed.

It’s true that he sometimes, as Grosvenor puts it, ‘seemed to venture outside the bounds of “good taste”’. But Grosvenor continues: ‘The great performances would not have been possible if he’d subjected himself to the kind of self-policing that would have meant he never produced anything unpalatable.’ For Goerner, meanwhile, ‘He never did things just to be interesting … he always had a profound reason.’ And he could be remarkably self-disciplined when he felt the music required it. His first recording of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata (1963) is one of the cleanest and most respectful accounts you could hope to hear. Nor does he distract from the seriousness of Schubert’s B flat Sonata; he simply loves and cherishes the music but in his own personal way. As Hough says: ‘Very occasionally you sense his giving in to vulgarity, with a crude kind of showmanship. Sometimes his Chopin can be heavy-handed, not so much in tone but in conception. But then you hear a mazurka and think no one else played them so beautifully.’ To this I’d add several nocturnes and certainly the Fourth Ballade.

How, then, do we strike a balance? Lydia Artymiw is surely close to the mark in her contribution to David Dubal’s Remembering Horowitz (Schirmer, 2001): ‘Horowitz’s playing truly represented an aesthetic that predates commercial recording. Most pianists today are influenced by the microphone, whether or not they are recording. Their primary goal seems to be to produce a performance which could withstand multiple hearings. The Horowitz performance, on the other hand, was calculated for the moment.’ And as Rosen, never likely to be an unqualified admirer, observes: ‘What was unequalled about his playing was his intensity: he seemed to be playing not only with all he had but even to be forcing himself beyond his means.’ Janis recalls the nervous energy in Horowitz’s playing, which he finds rare among today’s artists. Horowitz himself admitted that there was both ‘devil and angel inside of me … in order to protect what the composer wanted’. With age he mellowed, and the devil, as he confessed in The Last Romantic, gradually gave place to the angel. Is it perhaps the case that the ‘wizard of virtuosity’, as his contemporaries knew him, is for our age becoming, in Goerner’s words, ‘the poet of the keyboard’?

Pianists tried to imitate him by playing loud and fast, missing the point that his tempi were often slower than others and his pianissimos were as ravishing as can be imagined

Stephen Hough

Where is the border between productive inspiration and harmful imitation? Janis remembers how hard it was for him to liberate himself from the influence of the master: ‘His way of playing would get into my head.’ It took Janis, he admits, three years to find his own voice. Horowitz had a peculiar physical approach to the keyboard, instantly recognisable visually: flat fingers, very low wrists and a curled fifth finger. Janis remembers that Horowitz tried this technique with him but it wouldn’t work. Graffman recalls that some young pianists injured themselves trying to achieve the same level of technical brilliance, and Benno Moiseiwitsch blamed Horowitz for pianists’ obsession with showing off their technique. Kenneth Hamilton, in a forthcoming article, remembers being swept away by Horowitz’s ‘cinematic sonorities and especially by the left-hand octaves and apocalyptic conclusion’ of Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann, and recalls that, ‘Trying to imitate Horowitz’s cyclopean clash-of-the-titans sonority at the opening of Samuel Barber’s piano sonata, I simply ended up “flailing around” … thumping mercilessly until I noticed my teacher’s horrified disapproval.’

For Hough, the problem lies more in selective hearing: ‘Pianists tried to imitate him by playing loud and fast, missing the point that his tempi were often slower than others and his pianissimos were as ravishing as can be imagined. This is the memory I have from the one concert I heard him play live – a whisper of one leaf.’

This brings us to questions of voicing and tone. For Graffman, as for many others, ‘Horowitz was the master of colours,’ and he remembers how surprised he was when after his first session with Horowitz he was sent home with LPs of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades and the words, ‘If you know how to sing a phrase you can also play it.’ Graffman carried over such experiences into his own pedagogy (his pupils at the Curtis Institute of Music have included Lang Lang and Yuja Wang). ‘A bass could be cellos but could also be bassoons; these are two different colours to be reproduced on the piano,’ says Graffman. For Goerner, a key element of the singing quality was Horowitz’s imaginative and unorthodox pedalling: ‘He had a great way of blending sound and timbre, harmonies and colours. He could sing on the piano as if the piano had lungs.’

Horowitz also made very exacting demands on his piano technicians. Franz Mohr, who in 1965 replaced Horowitz’s first tuner, Bill Hupfer, recalls many stories of Horowitz’s caprices, regarding such issues as the height of the piano stool, the piano not being straight and the placement of the instrument on the platform. Janis tells me that Horowitz always checked the weather forecast, as he believed it had an effect on the sound in the hall. There is some inconsistency in Mohr’s account when it comes to Horowitz’s piano. He admits that it was adjusted to what Horowitz liked (in terms of sound), with a very responsive action, minimum resistance to the fingers and a strong uplift back to the rest position. Yet at the same time he claims there was ‘nothing special about the Horowitz piano’. The Steinway Model D CD 503, a gift from the Steinway family to Horowitz, was the instrument he favoured on most concert stages. It was unique, according to Mohr, but only in the way that any Steinway piano is. Mohr observes that Horowitz’s taste changed over the years and that the ‘very super brilliant sound – which at one point he liked very much – gave way to a much more mellow sound’. Was it that Horowitz had been intuitively opting for such brightness given the limitations of recording technique in the early days, and took a while to adjust to improvements in clarity? Certainly the sound quality on his pre-1960s recordings is generally far less glassy than, say, the 1974 Beethoven Appassionata, which borders on ugliness.

With such a vast Horowitz discography and filmography, the time is surely ripe for a new critical biography that could put old disputes in their place and concentrate on Horowitz’s legacy for the 21st century. There have been some recent attempts at scholarly reassessment in Russian, but with a heavy emphasis on Horowitz’s years in Russia, and predominantly authored by Zilberman, who rarely manages to keep hero worship at bay. A multidisciplinary research project called ‘In Search of the Horowitz Factor’, whose goal was to use AI to analyse expressive music performance, chose him as its central case study (the results were published in AI Magazine in 2003 – Vol 24, No 3 – and can be downloaded online). Still, I suspect the debate between adorers and detractors will rumble on. In this way, as in so many others, Horowitz seems destined to remain ‘our contemporary’ for many years to come.

Horowitz Timeline

1903 Born October 1 in Kiev to an upper-middle-class family: mother an amateur pianist, father an electrical engineer. Horowitz’s sister, Regina (1900-84), would also become a prominent pianist.

1912 Begins studies at Kiev Conservatoire with Vladimir Pukhalsky and Sergei Tarnowsky, and later with Felix Blumenfeld, whom Horowitz praised in particular. He did, however, admit to being more interested in composition at the time.

1914 Plays for Scriabin in Kiev. According to Horowitz, Scriabin tells his mother that he will be a pianist but also insists that he should become a cultured person.

1920 Graduates from Kiev Conservatoire.

1921 Embarks on tours through Russia, supporting his family who lost their wealth after the revolution and war.

1924 Gives series of highly successful recitals in Leningrad.

1925 With his impresario Aleksandr Meerovich leaves Russia for Berlin.

1925 Concerto debut on December 18 in Tchaikovsky’s First with Berlin SO under Oskar Fried.

1926 Debut recital on January 2 at Beethovensaal, Berlin. On January 20 steps in for indisposed Helene Zimmermann in Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto under Eugen Pabst. The concert is a sensation with audience and critics. Successful concerts in Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland follow.

1928 US debut on January 12 at Carnegie Hall, New York, performing Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto under Sir Thomas Beecham.

1933 Marries Wanda Toscanini, daughter of Arturo, on December 21 in Milan. Horowitz and Toscanini go on to perform regularly together, making recordings of Brahms’s Second and Tchaikovsky’s First.

1936 Withdraws from the concert stage until 1938 – the first of four absences.

1944 Becomes an American citizen.

1953 After concert at Carnegie Hall on February 25 celebrating 25 years since US debut, withdraws again from public performance. After a period of almost complete isolation begins to make recordings once more.

1957 January 16, Toscanini dies. Soon after, Horowitz’s daughter, Sonia, is critically injured in a motorbike accident.

1965 May 9 at Carnegie Hall: returns to concert platform after 12 years of absence.

1968 September 22: concert televised (by CBS) for the first time (recorded in Jan and Feb).

1969 The third of his stage absences begins, this time lasting for five years.

1974 Returns to public performance and starts US tour.

1975 January 10: his daughter, Sonia (40), is found dead in Geneva.

1982 Returns to Europe for the first time since Second World War with two concerts at Royal Festival Hall, London, in May.

1983 Tours to Japan and gives two concerts in Tokyo. The tour is a failure and is harshly criticised. Horowitz enters his fourth period of silence.

1985 Resurfaces with tours to Paris and Milan. Films The Last Romantic at his NYC home.

1986 Historic return tour to the USSR after 61 years away from Russia. Gives concerts in Moscow and Leningrad and visits Scriabin’s house.

1987 Continues concerts in Europe, including return visit to Vienna after more than 50 years. Films Horowitz Plays Mozart.

1989 Starts recording sessions in October for what would be his last disc. Dies on November 5, apparently of a heart attack. Buried in Toscanini family vault in Milan.

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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