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August 5, 2009

Rare recordings of Vladimir Horowitz reconfirm his astonishing talent

One of the most tantalizing announcements to come out of the ever-dying classical music record biz came from Sony Masterworks a little while back touting a series of previously unreleased live recordings by Horowitz from the 1930s-'50s.

Horowitz Sony MasterworksThe pianist regularly arranged for his Carnegie Hall recitals to be privately recorded on acetate discs. In 1986, a stack of those treasures was donated to the archives at Yale University. The public is now getting its first taste of the magical music-making contained in that trove.

The first of three scheduled Sony releases contains Carnegie Hall performances of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in 1948 and Liszt's B minor Sonata in '49. Next up, due in September, is a program of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Balakirev; Jan. 2010 will see a Haydn/Beethoven disc.

The first issue is a stunner. It's hardly news that Horowitz was ...

a sensational keyboard artist, of course, but it's still a lot of fun to be reminded of that fact all over again. Although the sound quality on these recordings is not exactly pristine, the music-making comes through with a visceral impact just the same.

There is something wonderfully spontaneous about Horowitz' version of Pictures. The imagery in each movement leaps out of the speakers, from the spookiness of Gnomes to the electrifying build-up of volume in Bydlo, from the sparkling flurries in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks to the deliciously heavy atmosphere of Catacombs and Con mortius. And I don't think it's possible to make the Great Gate of Kiev sound any, well, greater than Horowitz manages here; this pianism is simply breathtaking in its sweep and richness of tone. The Liszt sonata likewise receives a majestic performance, brimming with tension and poetry. A riveting, revelatory experience.

Although you can question his stylistic choices, Horowitz nonetheless remains a benchmark of musical electricity. You can question his technique, too, I suppose.  Sure, he drops notes -- if you thought he only made mistakes in his later years, this recording will correct that impression. But even his messiest moments are more interesting and rewarding than much of what passes for keyboard brilliance now. Pianists today just don't play like this, think like this, grip like this.

Sony is off to a great start with this important series. I can't wait for the next installment.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:13 PM | | Comments (2)


Horowitz is a pianist I almost love to hate, in a sense, because despite his incredible technique, I have _many_ interpretive qualms with his performances. To me, he almost tried to do _too_ much, and he always did it with his "big," in-your-face sound, which had a habit of appearing almost too-expectedly: you just _knew_ it was coming, somewhere or everywhere. If Stokowski had been a virtuoso pianist...

(For example, I cannot _stand_ his Scarlatti, but, then again, I can't stand _any_ Scarlatti on a modern piano. Vlad's Scriabin just doesn't do anything for me, either, but, when compared to the man below...)

My chosen "god" of the piano would be Richter. (Well, more like he chose me, but I really just happened to be lucky enough to run across one of his late Schubert recordings about a decade ago...) He was a bit more selective with his repertoire, and I often agree with his choices: he knew what he could do best and stuck to it. (Which, of course, ended up being quite a lot.) I don't think any less of Gilels, either, though his tone wasn't quite as brilliant as Slava's (picture Emil as Thor compared to Richter's Odin). Both offer _stout_ competition to Horowitz in shared territory.

Horowitz certainly was electrifying, but he didn't have the same _heat_, if you can understand my meaning: a great showman, but a little lacking in soul, I feel... Not always, but too often, especially in comparison.

As for dropped notes: puh-lease! I'd _love_ to be able to drop _only_ those same notes, and with such magnificence. Note-perfection is overrated, anyway (Rubinstein? Cortot? -- not even Emil & Slava were finger-perfect!), because we're not robots; if anyone wants flawless note-hitting, then be Nancarrow and get a player piano! (Or do what I do and use a computer.)

Finally (finally!), regarding "Pictures...," I most enjoy Richter's live recordings (though I avoid the Sofia, which is in absolutely craptacular sound accompanied by the ambience of a TB ward) to anything, even Horowitz's two other recorded ventures. I'll have to give this new issue a listen soon. I admire Vlad as a pianist, but I've never really _loved_ him.

Maybe I'm just too influenced by Oscar W.'s observation that nothing succeeds like excess. VH's excesses never bother me, because there is a genuine, I-am-what-I-am quality behind his playing. Others, certainly those you mentioned, had fabulous, different gifts as well. (I'll take Cortot's splattered notes any day over today's digitally perfect players.) TIM

Next installment is out - Schumann: Fantasy in C major, op 17; Balakirev: Islamey; Chopin: Barcarolle in F sharp Major, op. 60; Liszt: Legends, S. 175, No 2 (Saint Francis preaches to the Birds). I'm not a piano expert, but I find the range of color and dynamics Hororwitz uses in the Schumann quite convincing and impressive. 2 complaints - only 55 minutes on a disc when they claim to have so much material and; surface noise is much worse than on the Mourrorgsky disc - I think the excuse of wanting to preserve nuances by not processing the sound is sometimes used as an excuse not to spend the money to get a first class restorer like Ward Marston or Mark Obert-Thorn.

Glad to know I'm not the only one to notice the extra amount of surface noise. And I agree about the skimpy length. Oh well, maybe they'll make it up on the next disc. Thanks for the report. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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