A few weeks ago an old university friend of mine sent me a newspaper cutting from The Sunday Times, 3 January 2010. It is a retrospective on Vladimir Horowitz’s career, from the 1920s to the 1980s, triggered apparently by the release by Sony Music of all of Horowitz’s recordings for RCA and Columbia on 70 CDs, in its Original Jacket Collection series.
Our time at the University of New England came during the longest of Horowitz’s extended silences – no public performances from 1953-1965 – but we were fully paid up members of the Horowitz fan club, and I avidly collected any Horowitz LP I could get my hands on: Horowitz’s own rewrite of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussourgsky was not a pianist and did not realise the possibilities of the piano, you understand); Beethoven’s Appassionata and a wonderful performance of the Sonata no. 7; Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Fritz Reiner; Homage to Liszt; Horowitz Plays Chopin; Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 and a selection of preludes; Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata and other works; and a very elegant selection of Schumann (Kinderszenen), Scarlatti, Schubert and Scriabin, fortunately long ago released on CD.
The admiration was not universal, however. Sunday Times reviewer Hugh Canning writes:
Just over 20 years after his death, he remains a contentious figure, idolised for his technical wizardry and mercurial persona among his many devotees, but grudgingly acclaimed by the more fastidious, who argue that his flashy showmanship blinded — or rather deafened — his fans to a certain musical superficiality, especially in the central Austro-German repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.
Yet, despite the critical caveats, he remains a towering figure.
In Horowitz’s favour, the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau is quoted as saying, after one of Horowitz’s first concerts outside Russia:
It was some of the most volcanic playing I had ever heard. I was sitting with my mother in the first row and I was amazed at the things he could do, despite the stiffness of the arms.
The great Polish Pianist Artur Rubinstein dismissed Horowitz after the third of his four periods of public silence with
[He] returned to the concert life as the great virtuoso he always was, but in my view does not contribute anything to the art of music.
My response to the proposition that Horowitz’s extraordinary technique blinds his fans to “a certain musical superficiality” would be that the technique blinds his critics to the musicality – they cannot see (hear) beyond the technique to the interpretive powers. Those who think he is just a “flashy showman” are really missing out on something. As far as the central Austro-German repertoire is concerned, what about his recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (listen to the transition from the second to the third movement), or his Appassionata, or the Sonata No. 7 with its incredible largo movement. In the “other” repertoire, what about the musicianship in Pictures at an Exhibition – not just the virtuosity of The Hut of Baba Yaga or The Great Gate at Kiev, but the delicate playing in Catacombs. As for his first recording of the Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with Sir Arthur Coates, dating from 1930 when Horowitz was 28 ...
Even Rubinstein was not always so dismissive of Horowitz. Having heard him at a concert in Paris in 1926, Rubinstein declared:
There was much more than brilliance and technique; there was an easy elegance – the magic of something that defies description.
That assessment will do me; my sympathies are firmly with the “towering figure” school.
I will soon have an opportunity to opine more authoritatively on Horowitz’s oeuvre. A couple of weeks ago I took the plunge and ordered the 70 CD set from Presto Classical in the UK – a bargain at £195.65, especially when the current AUD-GBP exchange rate is considered. The item itself is currently located on this page here. My copy was despatched from the UK on 9 April, so it should have been well clear before Eyjafjallajökull brought European aviation to a standstill; otherwise, who knows when it will turn up.
Until Rupert puts up his paywall on 1 July, you can read Canning’s review for yourself here.