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Last of the Romantics
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Rondo alla Turca [3:43]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Waltz No.3 in A minor, Op.34, No.2 [4:58]
Barcarolle, Op.60 [8:40]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Songs without words: Elégie/Spring song/The Shepherd’s Complaint [7:03]
Felix MENDELSSOHN/Vladimir HOROWITZ
Wedding March and Variations after Liszt [6:05]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arabesque, Op.18 [6:35]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)/HOROWITZ
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 [8:48]
Hungarian Rhapsody No.19 [9:46]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Sonata No.9 in one movement ‘Black Mass’, Op.68 [6:22]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Étincelles [2:12]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Children’s Corner: Serenade for the Doll [2:55]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)/HOROWITZ
Variations on Themes from Carmen [3:35]
John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)/HOROWITZ
Stars and Stripes Forever [3:53]
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
rec. various dates, no specific details given.
ALTO ALC1257 [75:38]

It is interesting to speculate on what precisely gives particular artists the status of legend. Is it raw talent alone or do they also need to carry a certain air of mystery. In the past before the technique of recording was developed it was only word of mouth passed down the ages together with contemporary accounts in newspapers and journals that secured such people their place in history. In ‘modern times’ which could be said to date from 1860 when the earliest record of the human voice was made we have been fortunate indeed to be able to judge for ourselves as to the merits placed upon the shoulders of ‘legendary’ performers.

What is in no doubt is that the subject of this disc is one such. It is well documented in words and on disc that Vladimir Horowitz’s playing was not always perfect — not that he was alone in this aspect. That is perhaps one reason that helps his legendary status to be maintained since this gave him a human vulnerability that is often hard to find today. After all, we are now used to every last i being dotted and every t crossed in the recording studio as a result sometimes of multiple takes and the engineering out of any hint of imperfection. As far as this disc is concerned the art of re-mastering gives us an even better example of the 'warts and all' nature and 'seat of the pants' excitement of Horowitz’s pianism.

A child prodigy, Horowitz (born Gorowitz) began piano lessons aged three, entering the local conservatory in Kiev at nine. With a mother, sister and brother who were all accomplished musicians it is hardly surprising that he too went down the same path. By the time he was 17 it was he who made his debut and became able to support his family following his father’s loss of property after the Revolution in 1917. At 22 he toured abroad for the first time and blew audiences away in Berlin, Hamburg and Paris. A complex man, full of contradictions, Horowitz made playing anything look easy despite his under-use of the pedal and his straight-fingered playing.

Horowitz was notorious for cancelling concerts at short notice which led to adverse publicity but also contributed to creating almost mythical status. His return to the concert platform after various self-imposed absences which totalled 22 years between the mid-1930s and 1980s fuelled receptions these days reserved for the biggest ‘superstars’. As the liner-notes point out, on one occasion audiences queued in the rain outside Carnegie Hall for 27 hours before the box office opened; now that is what helps make a legend. He was clearly hugely moved by audience reaction and it is hard to believe that in fact he suffered from nerves throughout his career because once playing he always seemed transfixed. It is noted too how often he deviated from the score which he defended by saying that Chopin never played a piece the same way twice. However, this habit may have caused Emanuel Ax’s comment that while Horowitz was always in control he gave the impression ‘that everything was just on the verge of going haywire’. All these tendencies helped with his legendary status since his concerts were so imbued with feverish anticipation that for days in advance the talk was of nothing else.

If you have never heard his playing before you might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about especially when it comes to some of the short works on this disc. It is only when he plays something that is renowned for its supreme difficulty that you begin to understand how naturally gifted he was. Examples of that here include Mendelssohn/Horowitz: Wedding March and Variations after Liszt, Liszt/Horowitz: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 2 and 19 and Moszkowski’s Étincelles. The embellishments he added certainly made them more fiendishly difficult to play. Listen to the closing three minutes of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody for a good example of this; no wonder the audience erupts. In 1928 when he gave a performance of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto in Carnegie Hall the usually reserved critic Olin Downes wrote that the audience’s reaction was ‘like a tiger let loose’. Similarly when he plays Scriabin’s Sonata No.9 ‘Black Mass’ his artistry is further revealed in what in most player’s hands is an extremely difficult work which he makes sound no problem at all.

Moszkowski’s Étincelles, although it is a short piece of only a fraction over two minutes is a case in which his supreme mastery shows itself. He dominates the music completely making it sound a brilliant little gem. His Debussy is also delightful with little in the way of idiosyncrasy, just pure magic. The booklet writer’s declared favourite is Horowitz’s own fanciful arrangement of some of Bizet’s themes from Carmen, especially the Danse bohème which he injects full of humour and it’s easy to see why. The disc ends with another of these playful excursions in the shape of his arrangement of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever leaving us wishing there was a second disc to listen to. Horowitz was a one-off and a complete original, someone for whom the description of Last of the Romantics is fully justified. We are unlikely to see his like again, despite the Lang Langs of this world.

Steve Arloff






 




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