Vladimir Horowitz remembered – on his birthday

Vladimir Horowitz was a unique presence, one which set the musical and, more particularly, the pianistic world ablaze. Composers and performers, creators and recreators alike vied to define his quality and status and usually ended lost in a sea of hyperbole. For Rachmaninov he was, quite simply, the 'only player in the world of my Third Concerto'. Prokofiev listened in amazement to Horowitz's recording of his Seventh Sonata, and Samuel Barber reeled under the impact of Horowitz's 'first' performance of his Sonata. Among pianists Rudolf Serkin exclaimed, 'his Chopin is like a fire-ball exploding' and William Kapell paid him an astute and mischievous compliment when he said, 'if people understood what Horowitz's tone meant, he would be banned from the keyboard'. Comments of that nature had previously been reserved for Liszt and Paganini.

Of course Horowitz had his detractors. Virgil Thompson who had earlier found Dame Myra Hess 'not memorable like a love affair, but satisfactory like a good tailor' went on to find Horowitz 'a master of musical distortion rather than poetic truth'. More recently a greatly celebrated Russian pianist wagged a reproving finger at me for what he considered unacceptable eulogy. 'Horowitz is a great pianist but he is not a great artist', he told me severely. 'Music is an interior, spiritual quest; he is like a dazzling figure skater, only interested in externals, in cutting capers'. Rubinstein, too, piqued by what he saw as a rival success, conducted a sniping attack in the second volume of his unfortunate autobiography. Today, there are even less generous estimates; in many instances the bitter fruit of envy, an implacable puritanism and selective, superficial listening. Virtuosity has, after all, always been a dirty word in some circles.

So what was it about Horowitz that sparked such controversy? There were, after all, other virtuosos. First and perhaps foremost there was his instantly recognizable sonority; his lean, flinty, biting and intense treble, his thunderous, resonating bass. His no less celebrated and original cantabile, too, somehow defied the piano's supposed limitations, its percussiveness and lack of sustaining power. Horowitz's sound seemed to grow and blossom with all the fullness of great singing or string playing long after it should logically have ceased. These qualities combined with a facility and rhythmic aplomb that caused other would-be pyrotechnicians to pale into insignificance. His octaves were one of music's legends and, as the late Arthur Hedley put it, 'after hearing Horowitz play Chopin's octave Etude the only thing to do was to have a heart attack!'. His repeated notes were like the rattle of machine-gun fire and his way with the high-flying figuration of, say, a Moszkowski Etude could turn a salon charmer into a vertiginous flight of the imagination.

As the above repertoire suggests, Horowitz was an unashamed romantic. Few pianists are entirely comprehensive and Horowitz was no exception. Only the most ardent devotee will listen often to his Mozart and Schubert (at any rate to his more large-scale offerings; Mozart's K488 Concerto or the Schubert B flat Sonata). Here Horowitz's arsenal of effects turned simplicity into archness, strength into violence. Caught in a limbo between tradition and idiosyncrasy, between mischief-making and respectability, Horowitz was invariably too restless, too volatile to compare with a Schnabel, Kempff, Fischer (Edwin and Annie) or Brendel in such repertoire.

A Horowitz performance, then, was one which played palpably and deliberately on his audience's nerves and which extracted, as if with tweezers, an essence from a composition undreamed of even by its creator. His demonic wit and ebullience could set the more perverse pages of Liszt and Scriabin (the former's Scherzo and March, the latter's Vers la flamme, for example) alight with a fire all his own, a black magic that made hackles rise and pulses accelerate. Even the most critical and blasé listeners felt compelled to listen. Inflammatory when least expected, he could make a Chopin Nocturne less an evocation of 'embalmed darkness' than a place of nightmare. If Rubinstein showed a classic and patrician sense of contour in Chopin, Horowitz looked on the wild side, avidly seeking a 'romantic agony' of the most vibrant passion and colour. In such music Horowitz's audacity and, indeed, outrageousness knew no bounds, and the communicative force of his playing drove his audiences near to hysteria.

In conversation Horowitz hid such powers behind an outwardly serene, courtly and old-world mask, asking questions of a curious cunning and ingenuousness. 'Do you think I have a good technique? I'm not a mechanic you know, I can produce different colours, textures and sounds. People tell me I'm an original, but! don't see it.' His private repertoire was immense. It included the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas, all the piano music of Fauré and Ravel etc. But his public offerings were tantalizing and selective. In an unforgettable visit to Horowitz's New York home in 1975 he suddenly asked whether I would like to hear him play something. The next hour was devoted to large sections of Medtner's Night Wind Sonata and a selection of Fairy Tales, complete with running commentary, a truly mesmeric experience.

Horowitz's Bach was invariably hyphenated but so, in a sense, was everything else. His wealth of colour and drama in Clementi was curiously his own and his Scarlatti danced with a pin-point brilliance and vivacity. He introduced Prokofiev's Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Sonatas to America and confessed to a special love for Ravel, whom he met in Paris early in his career. 'This strange little man came up to me after I had played Jeux d'eau and said, "your Ravel is brilliant, quite Lisztian, but here in Paris we play him a little more impressionistically". I was greatly amused until someone whispered, "c'est Maurice Ravel!".' Quixotically he dismissed Gaspard as démodé and so one is left to imagine an 'Ondine' of ultimate seduction and entreaty and a chillingly macabre 'Le gibet'. Joseph Szigeti described a performance of 'Scarbo' in his house as among the most extraordinary muscial experience of his life, and so Horowitz's failure to record Gaspard or indeed anything else by Ravel is surely among our greatest losses.

Like Moiseiwitsch, Horowitz reserved his keenest love for Schumann whose schizophrenic poetry found a ready and vivid response in his own nature. Has anyone ever concluded Kreisleriana with a more gnomic sense of those near-Ivesian, displaced accents, or spun off a Presto appassionata (the richly eventful alternative finale to the G minor Sonata) with a more intricate sense of its pianistic complexity? The Humoresque, Toccata, Blumenstück and, later, the F minor Sonata all became mainstays of his repertoire. Carnaval, too, though that, together with the Bunte Blätter was never recorded, at least not officially.

Horowitz's influence was of course immense. During his heyday pianists, particularly in America, aped his every mannerism. Alas, sounding neither like Horowitz nor themselves they usually ended in confusion, sadly uncertain of their true musical identity. 'The mantle of Horowitz' has supposedly descended on a great many young shoulders but few if any merit such an accolade and the majority are clearly of another breed. 'They think they sound like me, but. . . they don't!', Horowitz gleefully chuckled. Horowitz was by his very nature inimitable.

Only a book could hope to chart the uncertain zig-zag nature of Horowitz's art and career. There was, for example, his dual American debut with Sir Thomas Beecham in 1928 in Tchaikovsky's First Concerto. Stung by Sir Thomas's condescension Horowitz broke free and, with a coltish 'I'll show you, my English lord' velocity, stole the limelight and he achieved one of the most spectacular successes in the history of piano playing. Later came those frighteningly long silences, or 'sabbaticals', before a glorious – because unexpected – resurgence of activity, including his emotional return to his native Russia in 1986 after a 60-year absence.

There were admittedly times when Horowitz came dangerously close to a parody of his own style, and then his mannerisms unbacked by his 'million volts' technique seemed vulgar and intrusive. But I, for one, will turn with awe and gratitude to several recent as well as past recordings. And now that RCA's incomparable 22-volume set, 'The Vladimir Horowitz Collection', is being remastered on CD, the sound clarified and refined for our greater wonder, we can look forward to much reappraisal. Selection among his surprisingly large recorded legacy is highly subjective. Yet both of his Schumann Kreislerianas for CBS and DG are indispensable and provide the most fruitful comparison. CBS's recent issue of a 1967 performance of Liszt's Scherzo and March offers a hair-raising instance of Horowitz's dkthlerie while on the same record there is a wicked transformation of Mendelssohn's Victorian agitation in his A minor Etude into a whirl of dervishes. The 1932 Liszt Sonata surely takes pride of place among the early recordings, and so too does so much of 'The Young Horowitz' (RCA) which includes the pianist's own Danse excentrique, an incisive and affectionate tribute to Gershwin and his own adopted America. Then there is Kabalevsky's Third Sonata, its brittle charm seized and elaborated with fiendish cunning and sophistication. Horowitz's own monstrous inflations of the Mussorgsky Pictures, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos 2, 15 and 19, Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre and of course Sousa's Stars and Stripes will always feature in any piano fancier's collection. Scriabin's Ninth and Tenth Sonatas and the Samuel Barber Sonata are no less vintage Horowitz. DG's 'Horowitz at home,' the last recording to be issued, is a timely reminder of the more lyrical side of his genius with much of the repose that for so long eluded him. Horowitz's romantic 'polyphonic' style, one which could 'voice', scatter or realign any harmony or texture at will, can also be heard in the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, a live performance, with Rostropovich, in the most spine-tingling sense. In sad farewell I would choose 'Träumerei' from Schumann's Kinderszenen in one of the earlier recordings, music Horowitz so often included as an encore and which became indelibly associated with his matchless charisma.

Finally I can only say that nothing, not even those daunting revelations in Glenn Plaskin's biography, can dim the impact of such playing. The ne plus ultra of romantic and daemonic virtuosity, it will surely resound down the ages. Horowitz once told me he could play like an angel. This I continue to doubt, but he could certainly play like the devil.

(Vladimir Horowitz. Born Kiev October 1, 1904; Died New York November 5, 1989)

 

First published in Gramophone in December 1989.

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