Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review: Horowitz - The Indispensable - RCA, 2 CDs

Except for few serious blemishes, 
an excellent introduction to the art of Vladimir Horowitz

If my personal experience is anything to go by, this double CD is certainly a terrific introduction to Vladimir Horowitz. It was my first serious exposure to his playing, and I got hooked for life. But let us get straight to the point.

On these two discs there are 29 (mostly short) pieces, all of them recorded by RCA, live or in studio, in a period of no fewer than 35 years (1947-82). Naturally, the sound quality varies greatly but - with few notable exceptions that are discussed below – it is excellent for its age. The selection is also fine (with the same exceptions in mind) and it rightly concentrates on the core of Horowitz's repertoire (Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Liszt), but it does also include three sonatas of his beloved Scarlatti and several encore pieces by Moszkowski which he loved no less; in addition, there are three stunning examples of Horowitz's transcriptions/paraphrases/arrangements (no, these are not the same thing). It is also notable that the pieces are carefully selected as to illustrate not only the extreme dynamic range of Horowitz's playing, but also its even more impressive versatility: from tender and lyrical passages all the way to demonic and maniacal ones; there is everything.

Normally, I would give this collection five stars without hesitation. Unfortunately, I cannot do so in this case. The reason is simple and – let me stress this – has more to do with RCA than with Horowitz, although the latter is by no means guiltless. There are three pieces on these two discs that really should not have been here; oddly enough, these are the three longest pieces: Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (live, 1979), and Chopin's First Ballade and Polonaise-Fantasie (live, 1982). Altogether they make up for some 35 minutes, nearly one fourth of the total timing. It is safe to say that any of these three cases represents Horowitz at his worst. They are perfectly dispensable and, considering what other choices RCA did have, their inclusion is unforgivable. Even I, who would rather listen to Horowitz at his worst than to a good many pianists at their best, seldom play these recordings and certainly would never include them in a collection that is supposed to be representative of his artistry.

''Mannerisms'' is usually used as a dirty word, but I think they are an essential part of the interpretation. The problem with Horowitz was that in the late 1970s and early 1980s his mannerisms reached, not only the absolute peak during his career, but a degree which is all but incompatible with musicianship. This was especially pronounced in Liszt's music and created some, to put it mildly, extremely controversial interpretations, such as this bizarre Liszt-Busoni-Horowitz version of Mephisto Waltz No. 1; incidentally, Horowitz played it for one season only. In contrast, he played Chopin's First Ballade and Polonaise-Fantasie all his life and recorded them several times. The performances here were recorded during his historical (first for more than 30 years) concert in London in 1982. Sadly, this was only one year before Horowitz's disastrous tour of Japan and his last retirement from the stage. The London concert was recorded on video and, though it is hard to find, if you happen to see it anyway, it cannot but strike you how terrible Horowitz looks: tired and apathetic, completely worn-out and rather inadequate. As a matter of fact, at this time Horowitz had fallen into the greatest of many depressions during his life, and he was indeed taking medications which had the most terrible side effect: he played badly. Considering his pathetic condition, it is amazing that he could play this London concert at all (and the program included Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata, too!), so it is hardly surprising that these Chopin masterpieces receive here a truly dismal treatment. For once, Virgil Thomson's notorious description of Horowitz as "master of distortion and exaggeration" rings true. It is only fair to say that Horowitz is not helped by RCA's staggeringly horrible sound. Leaving aside that screeching door at one place during the quiet introduction of the Ballade, this is some of most metallic, clangy, misbalanced and crude piano sound ever recorded. How such a mess was made and approved for release as late as 1982 is beyond me.

I understand this collection was issued when such terrific box-sets like the 
Original Jacket Collection (see Hank's great review) were not possible, so we could not have here Horowitz's finest recordings of Chopin's First Ballade (1965 and 1968, both live) made for Columbia/SONY. But as early as 1947 Horowitz did record the work for RCA as well. It is a raw and fiery performance that may be unacceptable to many people, but for my part it has an irresistible power and grandeur. As for the Polonaise-Fantasie, there is an amazing live recording from a Carnegie Hall recital in 1951. Both of these recordings are in excellent mono sound and musically infinitely superior to the London versions of 1982. Both were recorded for RCA and should have been included in this collection. As for Liszt, Horowitz's justly legendary recording of Funerailles (1950, RCA, studio) has a combination of lyricism and demonism that has never been equalled, let alone surpassed, and would most certainly have been a way better choice than the Mephisto Waltz. This is how the stupidity of recording companies leads to releases that might have been much better than they are.

Having said all that, there is a great deal on these two discs that is indeed indispensable. Few highlights cannot be passed without a word.

There are only four short pieces by Rachmaninoff here but they are among Horowitz's finest recordings. (It is a great loss to posterity that Horowitz actually recorded so little Rachmaninoff, but that's another story). One of his very few studio recordings from the second half of the 1970s (Prelude Op. 32 No. 5) clearly demonstrates that he, like all true virtuosi (which for me means pianists for whom virtuosity comes from the inside, not from the outside), could play very softly and with exquisite tenderness, too. The Barcarolle and Humoresque (Op. 10 Nos. 3 & 5, respectively) are fine live recordings from 1979. The Humoresque is an especially apocalyptic performance that makes Rachmaninoff's own, and very fine, recording sounds lacklustre by comparison.

But the real gem among Rachmaninoff's pieces here is the G minor prelude, recorded live in November 1981 as an encore after Horowitz's recital in the Metropolitan Opera House. This stunning performance has spoiled all other ''G minors'' for me. It is absolutely unbelievable that Horowitz had just turned 78 (!) when he played this. Sure he doesn't have the crispness and technical precision of a Lugansky, but there are here tremendously exciting climaxes of such an awesome power, that I don't in the least wonder why the audience goes wild immediately after the end. The beautiful inner voices of the middle part are wistfully brought to life with the same degree of uniqueness. The sound is a fine digital one and, like many other pieces, it is an improvement over the old remasters from the RCA Gold series. This piece alone is worth the price of both discs. And the most amazing thing is that the only other recording of the G minor prelude with Horowitz that exists is a dismal studio one from 1931 – dismal not just sonically but artistically as well. Apparently, during his whole career Horowitz seldom played the piece in public.

The Scriabin works here are only four etudes but they too demonstrate Horowitz at his absolute best and contain at least one performance that has spoiled all others for me. This is the famous Etude Op. 8 No. 12 recorded live, incidentally, during the ill-fated London concert in 1982. This is a fabulous performance, much closer to Horowitz's later interpretations of the piece (such as the one from his Moscow Concert in 1986), than to his earlier ones (the 1968 TV concert, for instance). Actually this is one of the most fascinating opportunities for comparison of Horowitz's evolution through the years. Both versions are very different and the later is certainly the better one: the tempo is slower, the dynamic range is expanded, from passages that are hardly audible Horowitz builds a majestic climax of epic proportions. Like Rachmaninoff's G minor prelude, this particular performance of this etude by Scriabin must be heard to be believed. Other Scriabin-highlights include the dreamy and melancholic Op. 2 No. 1 (1950) and the ''murderous'' (Harold Schonberg) Op. 42 No. 5 (live, 1953), both of them played as only Horowitz could.

Even though the Chopin selections are badly marred, there is a lot to enjoy here – if you enjoy Horowitz's interpretations that is. Like pretty much everything he played, his Chopin was larger than life, a Chopin of massive climaxes and stark contrasts, which was unacceptable, indeed unendurable, for many people. The rest of the Chopin fare here consists of three nocturnes, two etudes, two scherzi, one polonaise and the Barcarolle, most of them studio recordings from the 1950s in quite fine mono sound, none of them played in forgettable manner. Horowitz's incandescent (and only) recording of the Second Scherzo (1957) certainly has nothing to do with Rubinstein's aristocratic elegance; though I prefer the clarity of the latter, I wouldn't want to be without the demonism of the former. Chopin's First Scherzo was one of Horowitz's greatest favourites: he played it all his life and recorded in three times in studio (1951, 1963 and 1985). The first one is included here and it is positively explosive, though it might have been better to have the live version from 1953. Horowitz's blistering 1945 recording of the Polonaise Op. 53 is a most interesting alternative of his late recordings of the same piece for DG. Like Scriabin's Op. 8 No. 12, Horowitz's conception of this lovely polonaise changed out of recognition, with the later version losing technical brilliance but gaining musical insight. The nocturnes are among my greatest favourites, although some people dislike Horowitz's grand manner. But I, personally, love those heavy chords in the end of Op. 27 No. 2 played powerfully – and rather differently than all other pianists who play them as if it were three o'clock in the morning. If his four recordings (two studio and two live ones) are any indication, Op. 72 No. 1 was perhaps Horowitz's favourite Chopin nocturne. It is incomparably played and makes me wonder, yet again, what a mighty genius the man who composed such music at 17 must have been.

The Liszt selection, too, contains more than the unfortunate Mephisto Waltz. In fact, there are only two more pieces by Liszt here, but both of them are among Horowitz's most jaw-dropping recordings. His arrangement (not transcription) of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, with some marvellously creative touches in the friska section, is legendary today; his mind-blowing live recording from 1953, even more so. The famous Rakoczy March, on the other hand, can only be described as a paraphrase. Horowitz changed Liszt's original quite a bit and created a technical tour de force that sometimes verges on virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. I will leave to the puritans to be outraged at that, while I relish that thunderous left hand. By the way, gorgeously sonorous sound for mono from 1950.

The Stars and Stripes Forever is the only real transcription here. Horowitz did it as a token of gratitude to the US, the country that was his home for most of his life, and he created an excellent example of the ''Liszt-effect''. I have never much liked Sousa's brash original for a loud brass band, but after listening to Horowitz's mind-blowing performance (in great sound for 1950, too), I can't even stand Sousa's original anymore. In addition to Horowitz's frightening left hand, here is one of the most extraordinary illusions for four hands in any of his recordings.

Finally, there are the Carmen Variations, which are neither transcription nor arrangement; it isn't even a paraphrase. It is Horowitz's own composition, maybe not the most profound one in world, but certainly one of the most effective. The version here is the studio one from 1947 (in fantastic sound, RCA are really unpredictable fellows) which differs vastly from the much simplified ones that Horowitz played later in his career, including the legendary TV concerts in Carnegie Hall (1968) and the White House (1978). The 1947 version, like so many other Horowitz recordings, has to be heard in order to be believed. Towards the end, it must be admitted, Volodya gets a little carried away with the astonishing dexterity of his fingers, but otherwise he never allows lack of musicality or a mere banging to creep into his playing.

All in all, an excellent collection of Horowitz's recording from his RCA years which might have been a perfect representation of his artistry. Now it is not, but there still is much more to enjoy than to skip. Horowitz buffs would love to have the disc because it contains many of his finest recordings and it has a pleasant diversity; this includes a poignant remembrance from time to time that Horowitz, though a genius, was a fallible human being too. Horowitz newcomers certainly could do worse with an introductory collection. It is a fair guess that if you don't find Horowitz captivating here, warts and all, you wouldn't anywhere else either.

One last piece of advice to those who want to explore in some depth the phenomenon whom Arthur Schnabel called ''half-man, half-piano''. Keep in mind that there are at least two other, rather different Horowitzes: one for Columbia/SONY (1962-72), in whom musicianship and virtuosity were perhaps best reconciled, and one for DG/SONY (1985-89), in whom tranquillity and elegance completely transcended fire and brimstone.

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