On May 9, 1965, at 3:38 p.m., a man in formal morning attire strode onto the stage of an expectant Carnegie Hall. Tickets for the concert had sold out within two hours; students had waited outside through the night for the chance to secure an additional 100 standing-room-only spots. Now the moment had arrived: Vladimir Horowitz was about to begin his first public recital in 12 years.
That is one of the moments, electric with a sense of history, that you can relive in Sony’s recently released box set “Vladimir Horowitz Live at Carnegie Hall.” Checking in at 41 compact discs and one DVD, this edition mines the vaults of RCA, Sony, and the Yale Music Library to offer 21 concerts from 1943 to 1978.
With its scope and price (more than $100), the set will appeal mostly to hard-core Horowitz aficionados. But it offers what is in many ways an ideal introduction to the art of the most famous, influential, and controversial pianist of the 20th century.
Born in Kiev in 1903, Vladimir Horowitz emerged as a musical force in mid-1920s Europe. This was an era brimming with great pianists: Rachmaninov, Hofmann, Cortot, Godowsky, Lhévinne, Schnabel, Fischer, Arrau, Rubinstein — the list goes on. Yet even among those titans, Horowitz stood apart.
What first shocked audiences and other musicians were his power, weight of sound, digital dexterity — and his octaves. All those elements were on display in the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, that centerpiece of the Romantic repertoire that became the young pianist’s calling card.
In 1928, Horowitz provoked a furor during his American debut, playing the Tchaikovsky at Carnegie Hall with Sir Thomas Beecham, also in his American debut, leading the New York Philharmonic. The musical instincts of Sir Thomas were at odds with Horowitz’s; when the going got too slow, the pianist raced away at his own tempo, leaving conductor and orchestra behind. Horowitz detonated the final roulade of double octaves, driving the crowd wild. And so Horowitz’s American career began, in a legendary blaze of octaves.
A recording of that 1928 debut is not part of the Sony box set (none exists, to this reviewer’s knowledge), but two live Carnegie Hall performances of the Tchaikovsky concerto are included, providing the chance to compare legend with reality. Both recordings testify to Horowitz’s daredevil virtuosity.
In the closing double-octave cadenza from the earlier of the two performances, a 1943 outing with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Horowitz is larger than life (CD 1, track 3, 4:58). As the orchestra cuts out, the pianist emerges in a flood of sound. His sonority is huge, fully the equal of the orchestra. And his octaves are indeed brilliantly fast. But one also becomes aware of an awesome control: Each octave is precisely weighted and the rhythm is absolutely even.
Here we encounter several of the pianist’s special qualities, part of that cocktail of pianistic gifts that constitute the elusive Horowitz factor: a vast orchestral sound deployed with ironclad, fine-grained control. It’s as though an ocean were surging on command.
While Horowitz awed his first audiences with thunder and power, his capacity for extreme dynamic contrasts and kaleidoscopic timbral variegation grew over the years.
In the Columbia recordings from the 1960s that form the rich central section of “Horowitz Live at Carnegie Hall,” we hear a coloristic variety and plasticity of tone that must be unique in the annals of recorded pianism. There is so much nuance that it sometimes doesn’t sound like piano playing, or at least not like the piano as played by anyone else.
A Nov. 27, 1966 recital finds Horowitz in top form (CD 19/20). In the Schumann “Blumenstück,” the pianist’s radiant, autumnal sound and intuitive mastery of Schumann’s quixotic mood swings extract maximal beauty from this neglected opus. The Debussy preludes in the second half of the program demonstrate the last degree in tonal refinement and delicate layering of sound.
By the mid-1970s, however, Horowitz’s playing, which had always flirted with exaggeration, began to descend into mannerism, as suggested here by two 1975 recitals with the same program (CDs 31/32 and 33/34). While there are moments of brilliance in Horowitz’s Schumann Third Sonata, his Chopin First Scherzo is too raw and ugly, even for this turbulent music. Still, even at his least compelling, the pianist never gives less than his all.
Earlier in his career, Horowitz was a champion of new music. A flinty-toned Barber Sonata from 1950 (CD 6, Tracks 6-9) — the year after Horowitz premiered the piece — offers even higher-octane excitement than the pianist’s studio recording. Similarly, a 1951 performance of the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata (CD 8, Tracks 5-7), which Horowitz had given its American premiere, is higher strung than its studio counterpart; the first movement is one of the most compelling things in the whole Sony edition, positively oozing malevolence.
Horowitz came along toward the close of the so-called golden era, when performance practice allowed musicians significant leeway in interpreting the score. A new era was dawning in musical practice, one of increased fidelity to the score and stricter technical standards. Horowitz reconciled these worlds — the mythic universe of Lisztian virtuosity, and the bracing, slightly sober newness of the 20th century.
It is that fusion of mythicism and modernism that set Horowitz apart and that keep him relevant today. In an era dominated by technical perfectionism and the increasingly anonymous showmanship of ubiquitous piano competitions, we cannot afford to ignore Horowitz’s protean artistry.
Virtuosity is not all about pace and dexterity. It must also involve danger and risk. The Sony set offers a bonus DVD, “Horowitz on Television,” from 1968; for his final encore, the pianist offered his own treacherously difficult showpiece, the Carmen Variations. Every detail in Horowitz’s performance is thrilling, from the famously flat hands to the little inaccuracies that pepper the playing as the pianist pushes his technique to its limits.
There is the huge range of sonority, from thunder to whisper. There is relentless rhythm, driven by an inexorable left hand. And there is at the close an unleashing of the Horowitz octaves, which had started it all, way back in 1928, and which here blaze forth in undimmed glory. Then, finally, there is only stunned, frantic, grateful applause.Seth Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.