Saturday, 8 June 2013

Review: Horowitz plays Liszt - SONY, 4 CDs

Fabulous collection at fabulous price

Bad news first. There is absolutely nothing new here, and the collection is incomplete. Now the extenuating circumstances. Perhaps we are rather unwise to ask for ''new'' recordings of Horowitz. Quite a lot of previously unreleased stuff has appeared in the last decade or so, and perfect completeness would probably have swelled this collection with too many repetitions of the same work (especially from the late years where almost every concert of Horowitz was recorded and few were even released commercially).

I am also rather glad that most of Horowitz's early recordings for EMI from the 1930s are missing here, including his legendary Sonata. Now the historical importance of this recording is indisputable – after all, it was made in a very hostile anti-Lisztian times and it later inspired Leslie Howard himself – but artistically the recording is rather ordinary. It has too much of Liszt and too little of Horowitz. The same, but in aggravated form, may be said of Horowitz's early recording of Funerailles: no match for the later one from 1950 (fortunately included here).

That said, to omit Horowitz's late – and glorious – recording for DG of Schubert-Liszt's Valse caprice No. 7 is baffling. To omit his astonishing rendition of Ständchen, again from his Indian summer, is a crime against music. Never mind.

On the positive side, the collection is almost complete and includes almost all of Horowitz's Liszt recordings, among which are some of his most beautiful and some of his most controversial ones. Despite the lack of completeness, the set doesn't shy away from multiple versions. So we get here two Sonatas in B minor (1949, 1977), two Au bord d'une source (1949, 1975), two versions of Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (1951, 1986), two versions of the Sixth Hungarian rhapsody (1947, 1951) and no fewer than five versions of Valse oubliée No. 1 (1930, two from 1950, 1975, 1986). None two of these are identical – indeed, versions separated by decades are extremely different – and they all make for fascinating comparisons. So far as I can notice, no new remastering has been applied to any of the recordings, nor is there much need of it.

The set is handsomely produced, the discs being inserted in a hardcover booklet. Apart from track listing and recording dates/locations, there is only one short but very perceptive essay by Jeremy Siepmann in which he analyses the artistic personalities of Liszt and Horowitz. Completists would probably have all these recordings already, but at such a great bargain price they might want to have these treasures collected together in a more or less fine chronological way. For newcomers to Horowitz the set, though limited to Liszt only, is an excellent introduction to the artistry of one of the most unique pianists of the last century. For a couple of bucks you get nearly four hours of music here; timings: 73:40, 60:42, 51:54, 54:51 (I didn't make the last two up).

Now let's have a look inside each of the four discs. In round brackets: year of recording. In square brackets: other editions where the recording in question can be found; all of them, of course, can also be found in the gigantic Original Jacket Collection (70 CDs).

CD 1: CBS Studio Recordings and Horowitz's Return to Carnegie Hall.

ConsolationNo. 2 (1962)
[Sony Classical SK 53471: The Complete Masterworks Recordings, VolumeVIII: The Romantic & Impressionist Era]

Hungarian rhapsody No. 19 (1962)
[Sony Classical S2K 53457: The Complete Masterworks Recordings, VolumeI: The Studio Recordings 1962-1963]

Scherzo and March (1967, live)
[Sony Classical SK 53471: The Complete Masterworks Recordings, VolumeVIII: The Romantic & Impressionist Era]

Valle d'Obermann (1966, live)
[Sony Classical S3K 53461: The Complete Masterworks Recordings, VolumeIII: The Historic Return - The 1966 Concerts]

Sonata in B minor (1977, live)
[RCA Victor 09026-61415-2: Horowitz plays Liszt]

Au bord d'une source (1975, live)
Valse oubilee No. 1 (1975, live)
[RCA Victor 82876-50749-2: Horowitz reDiscovered]

Even though these recordings were made in little over a decade, there is nothing unifying about them – highly characteristic for Horowitz, Liszt and especially the combination of both. Diversity is the word indeed. Those unfortunate fellows (for they don't know what they're missing) who still regard Horowitz merely as just another banger should listen to Au bord d'une source, Valse oubilee No. 1 and Consolation No. 2 on this disc. Horowitz's passion for revisions has often been criticised, too, but his rendition of the 19th Hungarian rhapsody remains a classic all the same, and the powerful Scherzo and March (Horowitz's editing being denounced by Leslie Howard himself) is among the finest on record as well.

But the real gem here is Valle d'Obermann, absolutely stupendous performance recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1966. Only Arcadi Volodos has ever come close to (yet remains far away from) Horowitz's blend of explosive pianism and fine musicianship in this piece. In short, one of these recordings that has to be heard to be believed. So is the Sonata from 1977. Much venom has been spilt on this recording – ''parody'' it has been called, and that's one of the kinder epithets – but I still consider this to be, perhaps, the finest of Horowitz's three currently available recordings. To be sure, this is a highly idiosyncratic performance, much more so than is typical for Horowitz, partly because in the late 1970s and early 1980s his playing was often compromised by going way over the top. Nevertheless, for me this recording remains a towering achievement. Very few pianists have captured the Romantic grandeur of the Sonata as Horowitz does here. His earlier live recording from 1949 (CD 3), though in greatly inferior sound and rather more conventional as an interpretation, does rival the majestic proportions of the later one.

The real problem with this recording of the Sonata – as well as with other live recordings from the late 1970s and the early 1980s (see CD 2) – is the sound. It is strikingly different than the gorgeous sonority of the live concerts from the late 1960s recorded by Columbia, and I am not sure Horowitz is more to blame than the RCA's engineers. The bass is almost always overblown and the treble is almost always underpowered. The resulting (dis)balance is pretty jarring.

CD 2: The Last Decade.

Consolation No. 3 (1979, live)
Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1979, live)
Ballade No. 2 (1981, live)
[RCA Victor 09026-61415-2: Horowitz plays Liszt]

Soiree de Vienne, No. 6 (1986, live)
Sonetto 104 del Pertrarca (1986, live)
Valse oubilee No. 1 (1986, live)
[Sony Classical 88697573532 (2 CD): Das legendäre Berliner Konzert/The Legendary Berlin Concert]

Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (1989)
Wagner-Liszt: Isolde's Liebestod (1989)
[Sony Classical SK 45818: The Last Recording]

Here the disparity only too obvious on the first disc becomes almost outrageous. Talking of controversial interpretations, here is by far the most bizarre of all Liszt recordings Horowitz ever made: Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Leaving aside that this is a quite unique Liszt-Busoni-Horowitz version, everybody apparently thought that the previous version was not virtuoso enough for his fingers, nearly every bar of this performance is very weird indeed. Yet I am glad this recording, bizarre as it may be, is included here. The contrast with the simplicity of Consolation No. 3 could not have been greater. The Second Ballade also has Horowitz's awesome power, but the interpretation is a great deal subtler and more musical than that of, say, Howard or Ciccolini. For my part, this is of the finest recordings of this tremendous work.

The rest of the disc dates from the second half of the 1980s, that is after Horowitz's horrible mental breakdown and miraculous recovery, and therefore is hugely different. Volodya was still capable of great technical feats, but the fire and brimstone of the early years were gone, substituted with poetic tranquillity such as his playing had never known before.

I am not sure the three pieces from Horowitz's concert in the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1986 should have been here. There is a finer studio recording for DG of the last piece, and the first two were included in Horowitz's now legendary Moscow recital in 1986 where he played (and DG recorded) them miraculously. Nevertheless, these Berlin performances are almost as fine and the recording sound is first-rate.

The last two pieces come from Horowitz's Last Recording, as it was released by SONY, and these recordings were indeed made literally days before Horowitz's death in November 1989, aged 86. It is difficult to disentangle the music from the extra-musical circumstances it. But if one tries, one may well discover some of the most extraordinary versions of these poignant pieces on record – especially for such an age and at the end of such a career. Astonishingly, both pieces, as well as all others of The Last Recording, were new to Horowitz's discography. I doubt that there are, or ever were, many pianists who could show such passion for learning at the age of 89, after nearly seven decades of active career.

CD 3: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall  Early Live Recordings.

Hungarian rhapsody No. 6 (1951)
[OriginalJacket Collection (70 CDs)]

Hungarian rhapsody No. 2 (1953)
[RCA, Horowitz:The Indispensable (2 CDs)]

Sonata in B minor (1949)
[RCA/SONY, Horowitz: The Private Collection; together with Mussorgsky's 'Pictures']

Consolations Nos. 4 and 5 (1950)
[RCA/SONY, Horowitz: The Private Collection, vol. 1]

Valse oubilee No. 1 (1951)
[OriginalJacket Collection (70 CDs)]

The most interesting thing about this disc, availability-wise, is that, to the best of my knowledge, the first and the last piece on it have been released only once before and that was as special bonuses (together with the rest of that great 1951 concert) in the mammoth Original Jacket Collection. It's wonderful that this performance of the Sixth Rhapsody is available here as well. For it is the best testimony that even in 1951, at the absolute peak of his virtuosity, Horowitz refused to make a cheap show-off out of the famous (or notorious) octaves in the finale. The performance is technically hair-raising yet consistently musical.

This live recording of the Sonata from 1949 was first released only in 2009, in that priceless for every true fan of Horowitz series called The Private Collection in which many outstanding performances (recorded privately during concerts in Carnegie Hall in the late 1940s and early 1950s) saw the daylight for the first time. Many of these were new to Horowitz's already immense discography, such as Liszt's Second Legende – gratefully omitted here for it is Horowitz at his worst. The only problem with this series in general – and with the Sonata included here in particular – is the inferior sound. In many cases one has to make allowances for unusual levels of distortion and/or background noise.

The performance, however, is quite another story. It lacks the nearly ludicrous quirks of the later account (1977, CD 1 above), but it is miles ahead of the early EMI recording from 1932 (thankfully omitted here) in terms of uniqueness. This stupendous rendition is probably the finest illustration of Horowitz's famous dictum that music is ''controlled emotion''; his command of the keyboard all but defies belief, his interpretation is rather on the fast side but with many subtle fluctuations of tempo and virtually never unmusical. If one could pass the crude sound and the quite audible background noise, one is in for something truly extraordinary.

As for Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, this is a legendary recording of one of Horowitz's most ingenious and original revisions. He never recorded it in studio – Volodos much later did and for all his sophistication and technique he is light years away from Horowitz's white-heat excitement – but we are fortunate that the concert in 1953 celebrating the Silver Jubilee from Horowitz's American debut was recorded in excellent sound. This is just another case of recording that simply has to be heard in order to be believed, not exactly uncommon occurrence with Horowitz.

CD 4: Early Studio Recordings (19301951)

Valse oubilee No. 1 (1930)
Paganini etude No. 2 (1930)
[Naxos Historical 8.110696: Horowitz, Recordings 1928-1930]

Hungarian rhapsody No. 6 (1947)
[RCA Victor 09026-60463-2: Kinderszenen, etc.]

Sonetto 104 delPetrarca (1951)
Au bord d'une source (1947)
[RCA Victor 60523-2-RG: Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, etc.]

Funerailles (1950)
[RCA Victor 09026-61415-2: Horowitz plays Liszt]

Saint-Saens-Liszt: Danse macabre (1942)
Mendelssohn-Liszt-Horowitz: Wedding march (1946)
[RCA Victor GD87755: Horowitz Encores]

Liszt-Horowitz: Hungarian rhapsody No. 15 (1950)
[RCA, Horowitz:The Indispensable (2 CDs)]

Valse oubilee No. 1 (1951)
[RCA Victor GD87755: Horowitz Encores]

One wonders why the Paganini Etude No. 5 (recorded in 1930 and included on the Naxos CD, too) was not included here. Anyway, No. 2 is here and is terrific, but the Valse oubliée No. 1 (Horowitz's earliest recording of this beloved piece) is rather disappointing: rushed and crude, quite unlike the mystical atmosphere of the later recordings (including the one from 1951 on the same CD). There are other repetitions here that are fascinating mainly as comparisons with later recordings, such as Sonetto 104 del Petrarca and Au bord d'une source, or even Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 (more powerful but less musical than the 1951 live account on CD 3). None of these recordings, however, is without any intrinsic value, not even the brash Valse oubliée from 1930.

For me the absolute peak on this CD in Funerailles. I hate saying that but it's a fact: Horowitz owns that piece. That tremendous left hand has never been equalled on record, let alone surpassed, including by Horowitz himself: his early recording for EMI sounds dull by comparison. But it is not only the devastating, almost hysterical, grief in this recording that remains unsurpassed. I have yet to hear anybody to match Horowitz's magical lyricism in the middle section. By the way, spectacular sound quality for a mono recording from 1950; that's something one can't say for many Horowitz recordings, from that time and not only.

Then there are only the Horowitz revisions to be considered. The 15th Hungarian Rhapsody is actually a paraphrase of Liszt's original that all but amounts to original composition. It has – again – been criticised a lot, and not without reason as it is one of the showiest of all revisions Horowitz ever made. But I don't know what piano lover is so sophisticated as to remain indifferent to the absolutely unbelievable playing here. And let me repeat what should by now be well-known: even in the wildest passages there is not a hint of the noisy and mindless banging so often so wrongly associated with Horowitz. The frightening power and the orchestral sonority of this recording have been approached, rather timidly, only by Volodos in recent times and will most likely remain unmatched for the centuries to come. Likewise, Horowitz left little of Liszt in his version of Mendelssohn's Wedding March, transforming it into a rousing showpiece of tremendous bravura, performed in a manner later duplicated to some mild degree only by Volodos, again. As for the Liszt transcription of Saint-Saëns' charming Danse macabre, it is impressively well recorded for 1942 and Horowitz makes the orchestral original sound simply superfluous (if you excuse the alliteration).

In conclusion, these four discs contain a wonderful – and wonderfully priced – selection of nearly four hours Liszt performed in an absolutely unique (to be read ''controversial'') manner and recorded in (mostly) decent for its time sound. Excellent bargain for Horowitz buffs and Horowitz neophytes alike. There are some glaring omissions of some beautiful late studio recordings such as Ständchen, Valse caprice No. 7, Valse oubliée No. 1 and the Impromptu (Nocturne), to say nothing of the amazing Sonetto 104 del Petrarca from Moscow, but some early ones are thankfully missing (the Sonata and Funerailles for EMI, the Second Legende from the Private Collection). On the whole, however, the collection is delightfully comprehensive and the number of duplications is neither annoying nor without significance for tracing Horowitz's remarkable, to say the least, evolution of style.

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