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Horowitz at Carnegie Hall – Volume 1
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata No. 62 in E flat major, Hob XVI: 52 [14:04]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in G flat major, Op. 99 No. 3, D899 [6:47]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Vers la flamme Op. 72 [5:11]
Poème in F sharp major Op. 32 No. 1 [3:09]
Etude in F sharp major Op. 42 No. 4 [2:23]
Etude in D sharp minor Op. 8 No. 12 [2:12]
Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Piano Sonata No.3 in F major op. 46 (1946) [15:07]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Fantasie in F minor Op. 49 (1841) [12:29]
Nocturne in E minor Op. 72 No. 1 [4:33]
Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major Op. 29 [3:36]
Nocturne in F sharp major Op. 15 No. 2 [3:38]
Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53 (1842) [6:42]
Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
rec. live, 2 February 1948, Carnegie Hall, New York City.

Andrew Rose, producer at Pristine Audio, says that “this is the first of a collection of recordings made for Vladimir Horowitz's private use of concerts given in New York's Carnegie Hall. The recordings were captured on 78rpm acetate discs and survive in various states of disrepair in a collection held at Yale University. I have worked from high quality transfers which had had side joins made (with various degrees of success) but no further processing or cleaning up.”

With applause edited out or pared down this is pretty much the entire concert on 2nd February 1948 at Carnegie Hall, of which Olin Downes of The New York Times wrote that it was “attended by as many as the law would allow in the place… The performances were those of a master seeking humbly and eagerly for the perfect proportion, the complete realization of the composer’s thought, and never descending to artificial effects or mere technical deeds of derring-do to astonish an audience… it was as a musician and an inspired interpreter, and never merely as a spectacular virtuoso that he enjoyed last night his triumph.” Encores that are missed out on the CD version can be had as part of the download. There is mention of free MP3s which accompany the CD, but I’ve found no evidence of these.

The piano sound from this antique recording is surprisingly good, a little jangly here and there at peaks, but both the music and the general atmosphere, including a fair bit of distant coughing, is superb for its period. I’m not much of a Horowitz historian, and initially came to his playing through Deutsche Grammophon recordings of recitals given in his later years. Born in 1903, his status by 1948 was already well established. He had already given his Carnegie Hall debut in 1928, and his remarkably dynamic performing style and uniquely communicative musical personality ensured huge popularity both on records and in the concert hall. Gaining access to this kind of live material serves to add further dimensions to our experience of a great artist, and provide a remarkable audio document that is entirely enjoyable in its own right.

I’ve always rather enjoyed Horowitz in earlier repertoire such as Scarlatti, and with classical works such as Haydn’s Sonata No. 62 he is full of imagination and loose-limbed contrasts of drama and harmonic surprise. Horowitz remains faithful to the composer’s idiom while at the same time opening doors to inflections of style and character that point both forward to the romanticism of Beethoven and beyond, and indeed back towards the élan of the Spanish baroque, and all of this in just the first Allegro moderato.

The lyrical expansiveness of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major D899, with plenty of deeply expressive rubato, acts as a bridge between Haydn and Scriabin. Horowitz’s Vers la flame is hypnotic, starting out with mysterious atmosphere and building to a climax of true delirium. Coming back from such an emotional investment seems barely possible, but we’re barely halfway through the recital. Horowitz cools us down with an artful, almost nonchalant touch in the following Poème and Etude, setting us up for another fiery baptism in the Etude in D sharp minor Op. 8 No. 12, a brief but powerful essay in Chopinesque heroism.

Dmitry Kabalevsky’s Third Piano Sonata was still brand new in 1948, but its Prokofiev-like energy and harmonic richness makes in entirely suitable for this programme. The central Andante cantabile is a sinuously expressive waltz, the final Allegro giocoso turning into an unstoppable Russian blockbuster with plenty of sardonic wit: not quite at the Shostakovich level, but a good listen nevertheless.
The concert is rounded off with some Chopin favourites. The Fantasie in F minor Op. 49 is one of his longest single-movement works, giving plenty of opportunities for expressive and impressively virtuosic playing in its free-form contrasts. Horowitz is at the top of his game here, teasing us with those neat touches of rubato, but letting his hair down and not caring if a few notes fall out of the piano along the way. The sheer amount of soul in the playing prevents the bombast from sounding bombastic in the negative sense, and the occasional moments of fudge are excused as we enjoy the searching, improvisatory nature of this powerful live performance. This could well have been the conclusion of an already substantial recital, but there are further treats in store. There is plenty of plangent beauty in the nostalgic atmosphere Horowitz gives to the Nocturne Op. 72, No. 1, busy, bouncy fun from the Impromptu No. 1, Op. 29, another lyrical dose of regretful sentiment in the Nocturne Op. 15, No. 2, and the final Polonaise Op. 53, that famous Polonaise héroïque almost becomes an edgy caricature in the way that Horowitz turns the theme into something grotesque and larger than life. With the raw memories of war still very much at the forefront of people’s minds perhaps we’re being shown the other side of the coin in a performance that certainly takes fewer prisoners than that on a later Columbia studio version (review).

For piano fanatics, Horowitz fans, and those who want a window into a unique live Carnegie Hall experience from 1948 this is a fascinating and hugely entertaining release. Great credit goes to Andrew Rose for impeccable mastering and respectable presentation of the CD release, and I very much look forward to hearing volume 2.

Dominy Clements



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