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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 (1875 rev 1879 and 1889) [31:41] Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30 (1909) [34:22]
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
rec. March 1940 (Tchaikovsky) and May 1941 (Rachmaninov), live, Carnegie Hall, New York APR 5519 [66:03]
Though this is by no means a recent release, it warrants notice. It’s part of APR’s outstanding work in reclaiming archive recordings, studio and live, by some of the most eminent pianists of the century. This one is devoted to Horowitz but also, by extension, John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra who accompany him in Carnegie Hall.
Both the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov Third Concertos were essential items in Horowitz’s rather meagre concerto repertoire. Better known than this 1940 Barbirolli-conducted traversal are those Horowitz gave with his father-in-law Toscanini in 1941 and 1943, the Steinberg of 1949, Bruno Walter (1948), and the later Szell-accompanied reading in 1953. This 1940 performance has some deficiencies in terms of the sound quality. There are scuffs, some crunches, acetate damage, and one brief but vertiginous pitch drop, with an admixture - seldom - of some cross interference from another radio station. This sounds like a litany of failure, and a death-trap for the unwary, even the most conscientious of Horowitz collectors. Happily, I can say that it’s nothing of the sort. There’s fine depth of tone from soloist and orchestra, with no shallow or plummy piano tone. Barbirolli sculpts some intensely lyrical cantilena from the suave, Russian-drenched string players of the NYPSO, and there is much urgency but freedom in the interpretation. There are no excesses either, no tempo manipulations. Instead there is great panache but cogent music-making to be heard and a properly calibrated excitement. There’s none of the hyper-kinetic drive that could mar Horowitz’s meetings with Toscanini. In fact we are treated to stylish playing all round - excellent first flute with a very individual tone in the slow movement - and rhythmically vitalising playing in the finale. I’d place this high in the list of Horowitz’s Tchaikovsky - perhaps second only to the Bruno Walter, also recorded live in Carnegie Hall.
Horowitz had recorded Rachmaninov’s Third in 1930 with Albert Coates in London. With Barbirolli in May 1941 Horowitz is very fast, almost as fast as the composer himself, but phrasing, articulation and rubati are so precise, the accompaniment so deft, that there is no sense of bravura breathlessness. Colouristic frisson follows colouristic frisson, and Horowitz’s digital excellence is uncanny. This is a rare encounter, with Barbirolli drawing from the orchestra some marvellously evocative and pictorial sounds. The result is a perfect balance between lyricism and drama, between melancholy and virtuosity. It is a performance superior to the 1950 live Koussevitzky. By 1978, the year of a commercially released LP, things had slowed up dramatically. This too has suffered a little damage - noticeably at the start of the slow movement - but it’s of little consequence when confronted by musicianship this visceral.
Michael Glover’s notes are excellent. This marked the first appearance of these performances and they can warmly be commended.