Neurotic in the grand manner of a bygone era, Vladimir Horowitz was prey to a host of ailments -- most of them imagined, some all too real, but none more damaging to his career than his phobic aversion to public performance. There's no doubting that Horowitz sometimes felt the almost supernatural expectations he raised in his admirers as an insufferable burden. Over the course of a long tour, exhaustion would feed the suspicion that all his audiences really wanted from him were the displays of virtuosity he was, at other times, only too happy to supply with encores like his white-knuckle transcription of "The Star-Spangled Banner" or his delightfully tasteless "Carmen Fantasy."
Such suspicions, and the ceaseless anxieties they aroused, would invariably lead to a complete breakdown, then to a "sabbatical" from all public performances, the longest of which lasted twelve years, from 1953 to 1965. When on May 9th of that year Horowitz officially ended his restive seclusion by walking onto the stage of Carnegie Hall, it made front page headlines all over the world, and the resulting album (A Historic Return) was that rarest of animals, a classical bestseller. For the next four years, Horowitz twice appeared on television (a program specially arranged for CBS and a White House recital), recorded several important albums, and continued to concertize. But in 1969 he was once again beset by old demons and retreated -- this time, it was widely thought -- for good.
By 1974, I was living in Chicago and had long since consigned Horowitz to that company of Golden Age pianists I would never get the chance to see. So when out of the blue a recital was announced for November 3rd in Orchestra Hall, I suddenly became a desperate man. To this day, I have all too conveniently forgotten what I did to gain entrance, and I want to seize this opportunity to apologize to whatever person or persons unknown I shoved aside, mauled, mugged or swindled to get my hot little hands on that ticket. I do remember that I left my apartment three and a half hours early for the forty-minute drive down to the Loop. Just on the off chance of a six-car collision, I wanted to leave lots of time to visit the emergency room, be defibrillated back to life, and still make the concert. Waiting for the great man to appear, I kept reminding myself to breathe, then checked around to see if there were any empty seats. As it happened, the only two were between me and a smartly dressed older woman, who considered them awhile, then looked at me and said, "One died. The other had to attend the funeral."
Though I hate to admit it, I cannot have been the only one in the house wondering if the Horowitz I was about to hear could in any way duplicate the astonishing feats I had heard on his records. The answer was not long in coming: he could, and did. It was not just a question of agility and strength, of his playing faster and louder than our ears were used to hearing. Rather, it was his ability to cleanly articulate and shade every note, even in the most daunting passages, that truly amazed. He could move from whispery pianissimo to timber-rattling tremors, from gunmetal grayness to a sudden wash of prismatic color--and all without any sense of strain or effort. At the top, he could swirl gossamer or incite the Furies; at the bottom, there was the bass rolling inside an ocean swell or the sudden crunch of thunder. It put me in mind of Muhammad Ali's famous dictum; Horowitz too could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
On the way home, my battered head still spinning from volleys of double octaves, I found myself wondering if even the great Liszt could have played this well. After all, Liszt invented the piano recital, and for a time he pretty much had the market to himself. As the first self-consciously "Romantic" pianist, he had imitators, but few competitors. Horowitz first came to distinguish himself and then to dominate a generation that included Backhaus, Bauer, Lhevinne, Hofman, Barere, Cortot, Friedman, Godowsky, Horszowski, Levitzki, Paderewski, Petri, Rachmaninoff, Rubenstein, Giesking, Schnabel, Rosenthal, among others.
The present recital took place a year later and represents the basic program he favored on that second tour. At its center was a wonderful surprise: the Schumann Sonata No. 3 in F Minor (sometimes known, rather preposterously, as the "Concerto Without Orchestra"). At the time I had thought that Schumann was a fairly late addition to the pianist's repertory, but I couldn't have been more wrong. If you look at the very first program he ever performed (Berlin, in 1926), you'll find the Symphonic Etudes; and fifty-seven years later (in Tokyo), Carnival was the centerpiece of his last--alas, disastrous--public performances. Yeats said that great art is the natural byproduct of an artist's war with himself; in that sense, what better bosom companion for Horowitz than Schumann, whose greatest compositions balance bold, dramatic outbursts with gentle inwardness and a sometimes whimsical lyricism?
But until Horowitz took it up, the Third Sonata had always been the black sheep among Schumann's mature piano works. Unplayed and long thought unplayable, it was the result of "that awful year" of 1837 during which Clara Wieck's tyrannical father had forbidden her to see her ardent suitor. This long separation eventually led Schumann to doubt Clara's loyalty, then to a fleeting but serious liaison with another woman. In the Sonata, the violence and extremity of the composer's feelings overwhelm the classical structures within which he struggled to contain them, and the music alternates jolts of unrelieved tension with black despair.
Needless to say, Horowitz is its ideal interpreter, and this performance is one of his greatest achievements. He is in every way equal to the sonata's considerable technical demands. The final movement, titled, prestissimo possible, keeps pushing the pianist to play faster, and then even faster than that, and the sense of reckless momentum Horowitz works up is frightening. But more important, Horowitz is completely at home in the emotional turbulence of the music, able to express and articulate the tension without ever releasing it. In his hands, the startling clamor that erupts at 5'38" into the final movement is the sound of a personality shattering, and the dizzying burst of speed that follows it (faster! and still faster!), a rush to the abyss. Earlier in his career, Horowitz often excerpted the third movement ("Variations On A Theme Of Clara Wieck") as an encore, and his performance on a 1951 "live" RCA recital (Horowitz Encores) gives it an ardent, melancholic glow. But here, in the darker context of the work as a whole, he makes it sound anxious, hesitant, ghost-ridden; every hopeful gesture only produces a more intense form of disappointment. And that is the story of the piece, at least as Horowitz tells it: consciousness itself transformed into a phantasmagoria one cannot escape. After the tour, Horowitz would never return to this work again, and some have argued that Horowitz gave up on the sonata, came to see it as the failure it surely is. Maybe so. But my guess is that this music simply cut too close to the bone.
The remainder of the program is made up of long familiar pieces from the pianist's storehouse of combustible miniatures, each of which highlights a different aspect of his musical personality: tightly-wound ferocity in the Chopin Scherzo, sheer brilliance in Moszkowski's Etincelles, warmth and humor in Debussy's Serenade to a Doll, dazzling runs in Au Bord d'une Source, elegant melancholy in the Valse Oubliee, and sheer emotional grandeur in the two Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux. Since Horowitz has recorded all of these works before (in some cases several times), I thought it might be fun to compare some of the earlier versions to these performances. Doing so, I can't help feeling that Horowitz projects a warmth and patience in 1975 that seem to have eluded him earlier. Though the more dramatic works do not want for thrust or fervor in comparison to earlier performances, overall there's a mellowness in his recital playing that makes these shorter works especially memorable.
Compare his earlier "live" performance of Blumenstuck (from 1966) to the present one, and you'll find the latter less rhetorical, more relaxed. This is also the case when one sets performances of the Liszt pieces against even earlier performances (from 1947 in Valse Oubliee, 1951 in Au Bord d'une Source). For the younger Horowitz these pieces are occasions for virtuosic display; for the older Horowitz there's no haste, but rather a sense of affection for the music, reflected in unhurried tempos and more gracious phrasing. And for the first time in his many recordings of the piece, he actually plays Traumerei with the utter simplicity he long seemed incapable of. Whether or not the Horowitz of the mid-to-late 70's was actually playing better than at other stages in his long career is debatable; but I do think it entirely plausible that he was playing happier, and that that happiness made an appreciable difference in much of the music we were hearing.
The relaxation in his playing could also be seen in his manner. This Horowitz did not seem in any way uncomfortable performing in public. On the contrary, he clearly took great pleasure in it. In the encores especially, he delighted in teasing us. He'd wag his finger -- no, no, no, he couldn't possibly do another piece. Of course, this would only make us applaud and cheer all the louder, until finally he'd shrug his shoulders and smile: oh all right, if you insist, kindly Uncle Voloydya will indulge his greedy little nephews and nieces with another bonbon.
This set is an invaluable document. As it turned out, many of Horowitz's "live" recordings were not all that word seemed to promise, but performances from several different occasions cobbled together in the editing room to give a note-perfect impression. The Horowitz performances I saw during this period were not, by the way, note-perfect, but I'm not sure any of us really cared. If anyone had earned the right to drop an occasional note, it was he. But the problem is, Horowitz never performed a piece in quite the same way twice. So a patchwork performance takes the risk of misrepresenting his intentions. The RCA recording of the Schumann Sonata is, for example, more jittery and episodic, less coherent overall, than the performance heard here; and someone could take away the false impression that Horowitz hadn't quite settled into the music yet. That's certainly not the case with this unedited performance. It's clear from the first note that we're listening to a great pianist at the top of his form.
Certainly all those who had the great good fortune to see Horowitz during this felicitous period will want this recording, as will long-standing fans. As for the rest of you, if you want to know what all the fuss was about, this clear, radiant, and realistic recording will take you about as close as you're likely to get.