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Horowitz Plays Liszt
Liszt: Étudesd'exécutiontranscendanted'après Paganini, No. 2; Au bordd'une source (2 performances); Valléed'Obermann; Funérailles; Sonetto 14 del Petrarca (2); Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (after Bach); Ballade No. 2; Consolations Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5; Scherzo and March; Sonata in B minor (2); Valseoubliée in F-sharp major (5); Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 2, 6 (2 performances), 15, 19; Wedding March and Dance of the Fairies (after Mendelssohn); Valse caprice d'après Schubert No. 6; Isolde'sLiebestod (after Wagner); Mephisto Waltz No. 1; Danse macabre (Saint-Saens).
Vladimir Horowitz, piano

Review By Joe Milicia

 

  Now that Sony owns both the RCA and Columbia Vladimir Horowitz catalogues, the company can offer items like the present 4-CD compilation Horowitz Plays Liszt. (I've listed the works above in order of Searle number.) I haven't combed archives to see if this set has absolutely every Liszt solo-piano performance commercially released on those labels, but it's clearly pretty complete, offering two renditions of the Sonata in B minor (not just the 1977 one from RCA but the 1949 private Carnegie Hall recording released by Sony only in 2009) and five (!) of the Valseoubliée No. 1. If for nothing else, the set is valuable in providing handy access to some of the most astonishing Liszt performances ever recorded — even if it's hardly a compensation for those of you who, like this reviewer, missed out on the 70-CD "Jacket Collection" (recently priced "used" at $399) or who wish that Sony would remaster and issue a set of the pre-1960s RCA years, carefully arranged in order of recording date, the way RCA once released a multi-LP set of all of their Jascha Heifetz recordings.

The new set's arrangement of the pieces makes sense to the extent that each CD provides a satisfying listening session on its own (and no doubt each is suitable for single-CD issue). The first, and longest, is "CBS Studio Recordings and Horowitz's Return to Carnegie Hall," spanning 1962-77; it's followed by "The Last Decade" (1979-89), "Horowitz at Carnegie Hall Early Live Recordings" (1949-53), and "Early Studio Recordings" (two pieces from 1930, the rest 1942-51).

Disc 1 opens with an exceedingly lovely, beautifully recorded Consolation No. 2, from Columbia's 30th Street studio in 1962 (Thomas Frost). But much of this disc offers stormier affairs, like the almost crazily virtuosic Scherzo and March from 1967 and the transcendental Valléed'Obermann from the 1966 Carnegie concert, a study in building from a sadly calm opening to a staggering climax. (The grooves of many an LP must have been worn out playing this one.) For me, the great (re)discovery of the disc is the Sonata from 1977, recorded by RCA (John Pfeiffer) 45 years after EMI's 78s set. It was taped in the early stages of Horowitz' taking it on the road and, some have argued, polishing and "maturing" it. But the white-hot intensity of this entire performance must be heard. Even the first notes are nervous jabs rather than the usual brooding awakenings. I can't take time here to single out the many electrifying passages, or comment in detail on the inexorable sweep of the drama that Horowitz enacts. Certainly he offers much less contrast between the quiet, lyrical passages and the more tumultuous outbursts that one hears in virtually any other performance by a major artist; even the pianissimos here seem to be "agitato." Truly this is a love-it-or-hate-it rendition.

But the moody performance of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 19 (also Frost 1962, compiled from five sessions) deserves mention too, as does the Au bordd'une source, though this version is more about the sounds a piano can make rather than a tone-picture of a bubbling spring. The 1947 version on Disc 4 is more liquid-y in its swelling cascades of notes, though perhaps the greater realism of the 1977 recorded sound causes a different impression.

Disc 2 opens with three works recorded live by RCA in 1979 and 1981, followed by three from a May 1986 Berlin recital released by Sony in 2010. (The dedicated fan could compare performances of two of the latter pieces in DG's release of music from a Moscow recital a month earlier.) This disc finishes with two "big" transcriptions/arrangements — of Liszt's own organ prelude on a theme from Bach's Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and of Wagner's Liebestod— from 1989, released on Sony's The Last Recording CD. Sound quality varies: for example, the 1989 studio recordings are superior to the slightly muffled Berlin recital, and the 1979 Mephisto Waltz still has the jangly sound one remembers from the LP, but it's still a wonderfully outrageous performance. Those of us who heard Horowitz live in the ‘70s and ‘80s recall that his piano did have a somewhat metallic ring, though not as glassy or tinkle-y as in some quieter passages — ravishing, all the same — in this live recording of the Mephisto Waltz.

Disc 3 features "Early Live Recordings" from Carnegie Hall (though "Early" may be a bit misleading, considering that Horowitz had been playing in the hall since 1928). Some — the Sonata and two Consolations--were part of the thirteen late-1940s recitals privately recorded for Horowitz, who eventually donated the disks to Yale University; some of this material was released by RCA/BMG in 1994-5 and Sony in 2009-10. After 1950 RCA made its own Live-in-Carnegie recordings, and the rest of our CD comes from those RCA releases. The sound on all the tracks is quite respectable: Horowitz' distinctive timbres are very much in evidence, and there is very little distortion in loud passages, though of course some compression of volume.

The "big" work on this disc, the Sonata, is not nearly as feverishly intense as the 1977 performance on Disc 2; I would even call it magisterial, for Horowitz anyhow, and some listeners will doubtless prefer it. The episodic Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 (1951) is a particular standout on this disc: it crackles with the tension of a live performance, the sound is remarkably realistic, we encounter breathtaking moments like the trills and run at the end of the first episode, and (almost needless to say) the final climax is sensational.

Disc 4, "Early Studio Recordings," does have a couple of truly early recordings, from 1930, but otherwise covers pretty much the same years as Disc 3. Highlights include the famous Funérailles recorded in 1950 (unfortunately with marked distortion in the loudest climax), the flamboyant Fantasia on Mendelssohn's Wedding March (with much better sound from 1946), and a buoyantly rhythmic performance of Liszt's arrangement of Saint-Saens' Danse macabre. The 1947 Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 (the version on the Homage to Liszt LP from 1951) has a bit of a confined studio sound to it compared to the live version on Disc 3, and rather less flair, but the third episode is perhaps more soulful, and the melody of the finale is much more striking in the steady evenness of its sixteenth notes.

Finally, some comment must be made on those five renditions of Valseoubliée, which date from 1930 to 1986 and are scattered over the four discs. Any great artist's conception of a piece is bound to change over time, but it's fascinating to hear how Horowitz really did follow his intent to make each performance a unique "in-the-moment" experience. (As Jeremy Siepmann writes in his excellent booklet essay on Liszt and Horowitz, "Horowitz never knew quite how he was going to play a piece until he played it... He enjoyed living dangerously.") The 1930 recording is much faster — 2'10" — than the others, which clock in at about 2'50" (applause accounts for the booklet's longer timings). The speed is surely not to accommodate a 78 rpm side, since these could hold over three minutes in those days; it seems more a matter of "see-what-I-can-do" exuberance. A live Carnegie Hall performance of April 1950, though not so break-neck in speed, is wildly impulsive, making the piece sound like a miniature of the Mephisto Waltz--while a studio version made less than a month later is a bit eerie, almost demented, like Ravel's La Valse. My favorite performance is from 1975, again Carnegie Hall: it's the most poetic, in the sense of having the most varied moods, a great deal of rubato, and in general the air of being improvised on the spot. The 1986 rendition, live in Berlin, is more straightforward, almost no-nonsense, though lovely all the same.

If Sony wants to issue a Chopin or Scriabin set along the lines of the Liszt, I will certainly look forward to it.

 

 

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