Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review: Mozart - Horowitz - 1985-89, DG Masters

One and only one desert-island disc? This one!

If I am forced to spend eternity on a desert island and I am allowed to take but one CD with me (plus 5.1 audio system on solar batteries of course), I may well choose this one. It is very well filled with some of the most perfect keyboard music ever composed. What's more, this amazing music is played in a completely unique manner. It may not be "Mozartean" enough for the purists, but for me it is just about the finest Mozart I have ever heard.

The beautiful thing about this DG MASTERS release is that it combines in one place almost all of Horowitz's late recordings of Mozart. The Rondo in A minor is missing, but there is no space for it anyway. (You can find it on 
The Magic of Horowitz, see Hank's great review.) Otherwise these three sonatas, one Adagio and one Rondo are all studio recordings of Mozart's music for solo piano made by Horowitz in the last five years of his life (1985-89). Some of the sonatas have alternative live takes from Moscow (1986), Vienna (1987) or Hamburg (1987), and there is the 23rd Concerto with Guilini in studio (1987), but these are important only for Horowitz completists. For those who want to get introduced to the late Horowitz, this disc remains the perfect introduction.

No other composer benefited from Horowitz's miraculous Indian summer more than Mozart did. In earlier years Volodya played very little
of his music, a few sonatas and no concerti, and they didn't always bring out the best in him. But in the mid-late 1980s there was a new serenity in Horowitz's playing and it did suit the genius from Salzburg to perfection. To get a very clear idea how extraordinary this change really was, all you need to do is to compare the 1951 live recording of K. 333 (in the The Complete Original Jacket Collection, see Hank's great review) with the 1987 studio recording included here. The difference is, to put it mildly, enormous. The live recording is fine in its own way, yet it sounds harsh and brittle and cold in comparison to the poise, elegance, playfulness and charm of the much later studio reading.

If you want to appreciate how unique as a Mozart interpreter Horowitz is, all you need to do is to compare this disc with Maria Joao Pires' complete recording of the sonatas, incidentally made for the same label, at the same time, and in the same perfectly clean but rather dry sound. Maria is among the better contemporary Mozarteans; she is not terribly imaginative or daring, but she is certainly sensitive to Mozart's deceptively simple music. And yet! Listening to the same sonata with Horowitz is a complete revelation. The music takes on a new life, a much more varied and passionate one. Anyway, which performance one prefers is of course a matter of personal taste. What is not a personal matter but can be verified more or less objectively is that both performances are completely different – and that Maria's way is far more common among Mozarteans, especially modern ones.

We may truly regret that Horowitz didn't record more Mozart during those remarkably productive last years. But I think we had better be grateful for what he did record. The selection here demonstrates the whole range of Mozart's genius. K. 281 is among the finest of his earliest sonatas, especially the uniquely titled (Andante amoroso) and stunningly beautiful second movement. Likewise, KK. 330 and 333 are among the best solo piano works Mozart composed before his moving to Vienna in 1781; K. 333 is especially amazing as it is the only one among his sonatas to contain original cadenza, much like a piano concerto. Last but not least, the other works present Mozart in his late years, either in gloomy (Adagio) or in cheerful (Rondo) mood. None of these pieces contains even a single note too much. And in none of them does Horowitz play a single note which is not intensely expressive.

Finally, the liner notes of this edition – compilation of the original notes on the three CDs from the 1980s – are marvellous. A great deal of them comes from Horowitz himself, and he has some uncommonly interesting things to say. For example, he argues that separations like Classicism and Romanticism, except for didactic purposes, are pointless. All music is Romantic, he says, and Mozart should be played with as much rubato as Chopin – and with as much colour. If anything, such reflections give the lie to those foolishly uninformed claims that still circulate through the Web, namely that Horowitz was a kind of musical moron who didn't have the least idea what he played and whose only strength was his stupendous technique. Nonsense, of course, as the Mozart case amply testifies. Horowitz studied very seriously the music he played. He knew a great deal of Mozart's letters by heart; and it's probably safe to assume he was familiar with a very large part of Mozart's total output, not just keyboard compositions but also symphonic works, chamber pieces and opera.

In conclusion, this is a simply magnificent CD. It suits everybody. Horowitz completists and those who enjoy his late style would love to have it because it collects conveniently material otherwise dispersed on three discs. No need to worry that nearly 80 minutes of Mozart only would be boring. Not here, not with artistry of that calibre. Horowitz neophytes can hardly find a better introduction to Horowitz's late years. Keep in mind, however, that this was an extremely different Horowitz than the one for RCA in the 1970s and early 1980s, Columbia in the 1960s, or again RCA in the 1940s/50s.

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