Sunday, 11 October 2015

Photos & Comments: Vladimir Horowitz - The Complete Original Jacket Collection - Sony, 2009, 70 CD


CD 1: 
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition 
(RCA, 1947)
Terrific performance of a most fascinatingly touched-up version, but not the best possible sound (slight distortion, some background noise). The bell-like effect in the finale is something indescribable. Cf. the 1951 live performance (CD 23).

CD 2:
Prokofieff & Kabalevsky 
(RCA, 1945-47)
The tempi in the outer movements of the Prokofieff are dangerously slow (cf. Pollini for DG). Somehow VH pulls it off. Kabalevsky sounds like a softer, less percussive version of Prokofieff.


CD 3:
Beethoven & Mozart
(RCA, 1946-47)
The Moonlight is superseded by the 1956 remake (CD 19), though not by the one from 1972 (CD 49). Mozart's KV 332 was never re-recorded. Nor was there any need for that. This is an enchanting performance, surprisingly graceful and relaxed for those wild virtuoso years. The heavenly Adagio is played in a heavenly manner. The outer movements are bold and brilliant, reminding the listener that Mozart, after all, was one of the greatest pianists of his time, probably of all times. Harold Schonberg was quite right, as it often happens with him, when he remarked that, though VH could have problems with Beethoven, "his Haydn and Mozart performances generally have a purity that few associate with his name."


CD 4:
Schumann & Chopin
(RCA, 1949-50)
This is VH's first recording of Kinderszenen, marvellously played and recorded in excellent for 1950 sound. Later there would be another studio recording (1962, CD 39) and three live performances (1982, London, CD 36; 1987, Vienna, DG Masters; 1987, Hamburg, DG). Even the worst of these, the one from London, is more imaginative and worth listening to than some "Schumann specialists". The seven Chopin mazurkas, in the fine words of Harold Schonberg, "go with charm, rhythmic snap, and a delicate rubato, as they always did with Horowitz."


CD 5:
Chopin & Barber
(RCA, 1950)
I am in the minuscule minority that prefers this recording of the Second Sonata to the 1962 Columbia remake (CD 38). The 1950 performance is slower and weirder, or more mannered if you like, but for my part it has the quality of a passionate outburst that no other performance of this difficult work approaches. For once, the treacherous exposition in the first movement is played with appropriate panache, the Scherzo is suitably demonic, and the Funeral March is positively shattering. The lyric sections are very quiet and very tender. Only the inclusion of the first-movement repeat is somewhat questionable. Barber's Sonata is historically interesting but musically indifferent. 



CD 6:
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
(RCA, 1941)

This is supposed to be the weakest of VH's numerous recordings of this most famous of all piano concertos. Perhaps it is. All the same, it makes most other recordings sound anaemic. It falls somewhat short only when it is compared with VH's live recordings, the official one with Toscanini from 1943 (CD 22) and the unofficial ones with Barbirolli (1941, Appian), Toscanini (1941, Naxos), Steinberg (1949, Music & Arts) and Szell (1953, Andromeda). 




CD 7: 

Chopin 

(RCA, 1945-47)


Interesting cover. Sort of science fiction, parallel universes, alternate realities, things like that. Fits the performances here. They are, indeed, from another universe and another reality. Too bad the sound is dreadful. The highlight is VH's only recording of Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante, a highly effective piece played with great élan. I wish VH had re-recorded it during the Columbia yeas instead of wasting his time with facile salon stuff like Introduction and Rondo (CD 47). The Polonaise is brisk and blistering, superior to the unusually dull version for Columbia (CD 47), but not to the glorious performances from the last years for DG (1985 in studio, 1986 in Moscow, 1987 in Vienna and Hamburg).



CD 8: 
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3 
(RCA, 1950)
A pretty good rendition of one of the great masterpieces for violin and piano. Occasionally, just occasionally, Johannes let his hair down and produced something of the highest quality. A rare chance to hear VH as an accompanist. The only other opportunity is the so-called Concert of the Century (CD 52a/b).


CD 9: 
Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 2 
(RCA, 1940)
Great recording of a not-so-great concerto. Horowitz disliked Brahms, and I'm not sorry he didn't record more of his mincing music.


CD 10: 
Horowitz Encores 
(RCA, 1946-47)
A delicious bag of lollipops and candies. The standouts are the Carmen Variations (1947), Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words (especially "Elegy") and a mind-numbing rendition of Serge's Toccata which makes Argerich's fine recording sound like a lullaby. Note that most encores are actually quiet pieces, not vehicles for piano pyrotechnics.


CD 11: 
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 
(RCA, 1951)
Tremendous performance (by VH anyway; Reiner is rather dull) in terrible sound. Even Mark Obert Thorn, the magician from Naxos, could not improve much the muddled orchestra and the brittle piano. That said, I find VH's first recording (1930, Coates, EMI) and his 1978 live performances (with Ormandy on CD 31, with Mehta on DVD) more interesting musically and, in the case of the former, more audacious technically.


CD 12: 
Chopin-Liszt Album 
(RCA, 1947-50)
Interesting cover, but a less garish version might have worked better. Half of this album is the same Second Sonata as on CD 5. The new pieces are VH's most incandescent rendition of Chopin's First Ballade (also on CD 27), a graceful rendition of Liszt's Au bord d'une source and a barnstorming one of the Sixth Rhapsody. Compare the last with the 1951 live recording (CD 59b).


CD 13: 
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 
(RCA, 1952)
The purists be blown! For my money, one of the greatest Emperors on record. The playing is exceptional, smart and stylish, and the sound is infinitely better than the Rach Third with the same conductor a year before (CD 11). Dreadful cover, though.


CD 14: 
Chopin 
(RCA, 1949-52)
Here is VH's first and only recording of the Third Ballade, a lovely performance that makes even Rachmaninoff's sound like a travesty. The Fourth Ballade is not quite so successful, and though I'm not sure I agree with Harold Schonberg that it is "one of the all-time great recorded performances of the piece", it is certainly a very interesting and technically stunning ("at the impossibly difficult coda he uses very little pedal in an astonishing display of sheer finger independence", raves Mr Schonberg) interpretation. Do compare with the 1981 live recording with the Metropolitan (CD 34). One might almost say these are different works. Recordings are like photographs, VH used to say: sometimes you recognise the person in the old ones, sometimes you don't. The "bonus tracks" are all gems. They contain some of Chopin's most famous tunes (Etude Op. 10 No. 3, Impromptu No. 1) and demonstrate VH at his best as a "singer at the piano". When he said his main objective was to turn the piano from a percussive into a singing instrument like the human voice, he wasn't just talking through his hat. He really did try to do that. He succeeded remarkably often. At the same time, when the music calls for drama in the middle of bliss, as in the Etude and the Nocturne, VH is not afraid the neighbours would complain. Last but not least, this Chopin programme closes with a stunning First Scherzo, though not quite so stunning as the 1953 live version (CD 16a).


CD 15: 
Mendelssohn & Liszt 
(RCA, 1946-51)
How many people know that VH made an exquisite recording of Variations serieuses? The Liszt works are the highlights here, though. This is sheer pianistic sorcery! The tragic grandeur of Funerailles has never been equalled, let alone surpassed, by any other pianist. The famous octaves are absolutely jaw-dropping. Rakoczy March is generally referred to as VH's arrangement, but it's more like his own composition, bearing little resemblance to the original. Pure showmanship, you object? Certainly, but there is nothing wrong with that if one can pull it off so well. Meanwhile, observe how musical this performance is. The Valse and the Sonetto are fine, but for the finest in VH's discography you have to go to his DG years (1985-89).


CD 16a/b: 
25th Anniversary Recital 
(RCA, 1953, Live)
Stupendous recital! VH was in unbelievable form on this occasion. Liszt's Second Rhapsody is worth the price of admission alone. It has set an impossible standard. Only Arcadi Volodos has approached it since, but even his studio recording, fine as it is, pales in comparison with VH's white-hot intensity. As for Schubert's last sonata, the purists may again be blown! This is a wonderful performance of a work played by far too many pianists who don't know what to do with it. Sure, it's different from Pollini and Kempff (both of whom, incidentally, know what to do with it), but the interpretation is by no means less valid.


CD 17: 
Horowitz plays Clementi 
(RCA, 1954)
Nope, nothing doing. Despite VH's tireless industry to promote the music of Clementi, I still find his sonatas plain boring. This is the ultimate proof that great music survives on intrinsic value, not on whatever historical importance it may or may not have.


CD 18: 
Horowitz plays Scriabin 
(RCA, 1956)
VH not only played Scriabin's music better than anybody else. He described the composer better than anybody else: "He was crazy, you know." I do. Scriabin and I speak different musical languages. At least, unlike Clementi, he is fascinating and seldom boring, even if I cannot really respond to his so-called "mysticism". Incidentally, this is not VH's most interesting Scriabin disc. The album he recorded for Columbia (CD 48) contains more arresting music. The Fifth Sonata (CD 29) and the two recordings of the Ninth (CD 16b, CD 42b) are well worth an ear, too.


CD 19: 
Moonlight and Waldstein Sonatas 
(RCA, 1956)
VH is nowhere near as bad in Beethoven as you might have been led to believe by high-handed folk. This and his first stereo recording (CD 24) document his best renditions of the Moonlight-Waldstein-Appassionata trio, although his Columbia remakes of the last two (CD 50) are worth hearing as well. Check also his masterful Pathetique (CD 40) and blistering early recording of the 32 Variations in C minor (1934, EMI). The sound of these 1956 recordings is atrocious: the playing must be enjoyed in spite of it. 


CD 20: 
Horowitz in Recital 
(RCA, 1951-56, Live)
This version of Stars and Stripes is supposed to be "live", but it's curiously devoid of applause or any other parasitic sounds. It may have been some sort of radio performance. In any case, it is slightly different than the studio version (CD 37) and every bit as fantastic. Other highlights include a ravishing performance of Schumann's Variations on a Theme of Clara Wieck and an impressive, if somewhat febrile, rendition of Chopin's Polonaise-Fantaisie.


CD 21: 
Horowitz plays Chopin 
(RCA, 1957)
Some of VH's most beautiful playing heavily compromised by one of RCA's most disgraceful sonic achievements. Very harsh, very imbalanced and very right-up-your-face, I'm pretty sure this sound has nothing to do with what VH must have sounded in the concert hall, or indeed the recording studio. The four nocturnes and the two scherzos he never re-recorded later, nor are there any earlier recordings. The Scherzos do not erase memories entirely (Rubinstein for the 2nd, Stanev for the 3rd), but they are easily top contenders. The nocturnes are played with rare sensitivity but on a grander scale than is customary nowadays. So, if you like to use these pieces as sleeping pills, you might want to skip these recordings.


CD 22: 
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 
(RCA, 1943, Live)
This is the famous "war bonds concert". Less known is the fact that this concert took place just one month or so after Rachmaninoff's death. VH cancelled all of his concerts except this one. Both the playing and the sound are superior to the 1941 studio account (CD 6).


CD 23: 
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition 
(RCA, 1951, Live)
Better sound and more inspired playing than in the studio (CD 1). Cf. also the 1948 live account from The Private Collection (coupled with a jaw-dropping account of Liszt's Sonata from 1947).


CD 24: 
Beethoven Sonatas 
(RCA, 1959)
VH's first stereo recording. This Appassionata is very fine indeed. Do compare with the Columbia 1972 remake (CD 50). Harold Schonberg liked only the first movement of Op. 10 No. 3, but I think the whole of it is rather nicely done.


CD 25a: 
The Horowitz Collection 
(RCA, 1942-53)

Collection of repetitions - with one important exception. Saint-Saens' Danse macabre is "new", and it is one of the greatest piano recordings of all time. The sound is spectacular for 1942 and the sheer audacity of the playing makes the orchestral original superfluous. It is one of VH's most astounding recordings. It should be included in every collection of his "greatest hits".


CD 26: 
The Young Horowitz 
(RCA, 1928-47)
Some interesting one-offs in VH's discography (e.g. Liszt's Paganini Etude No. 2, Horowitz's own Danse excentrique), and some annoying repetitions (e.g. Kabalevsky), but as a whole these early recordings are dispensable stuff - and so are the rest for EMI made between 1932 and 1936. The important thing to note while listening to them is how musical they are. Even in his boisterous youth, VH refused to show off his technique at the expense of the music. 


CD 27: 
The Great Horowitz plays Favorite Chopin 
(RCA, 1946-53)
Eight of the nine pieces on this disc are duplications. The only exception is the Etude Op. 10 No. 4 from 1952. Fine performance, but the Chopin Etudes never really brought out the best in VH.  


CD 28: 
Great Romantic Piano Favorites 
(RCA, 1946-57)
You have to love those covers from the 50s, don't you? Only two of the eleven pieces on this disc are "first editions". The rest are duplications. The exceptions are Brahms' Waltz Op. 35 No. 15 (a charming trifle) and Schubert's Impromptu Op. 90 No. 3 from 1953 (which VH recorded again for Columbia in somewhat better sound nine years later, CD 39).


CD 29: 
The Horowitz Concerts, 1975/1976 
(RCA, 1976)
Difficult music to grasp. Schumann is massive and sprawling. Scriabin is - well, Scriabin.


CD 30: 
The Horowitz Concerts, 1977/1978 
(RCA, 1976)
This version of the Sonata has come in for a good deal of virulent criticism. It is a grand, sweeping performance, unfortunately let down by horrible sound (grossly overblown bass, very thin treble). To be sure, it is slower, less accomplished technically and more idiosyncratic (or "mannered" if you like) musically than the classically overrated 1932 recording (EMI) and the apocalyptic 1949 live version (The Private Collection), but I should have been sorry if this recording had never been released. I can't say the same about Mephisto Waltz No. 1 from 1979 (CD 32) or much of the London recital in 1982 (CD 36).


CD 31: 
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 
(RCA, 1978, Live)
Both Jeremy Nicholas and Harold Schonberg have called this recording "travesty". It seems presumptuous to disagree with such luminaries, but I do. It is different, certainly, than the recordings with Reiner (1951, CD 11) and Coates (1930), but by no means worse than them. The first movement cadenza and the whole second movement are slower, to a great effect, and the finale is just as dashing as ever. This is the 2000 remastered version. The sound is extremely clear but very dry, which means that you can hear extraordinary amount of detail but nothing like the sonority one is right to expect from a symphonic orchestra and a concert grand.


CD 32: 
The Horowitz Concerts, 1978/79 
(RCA, 1979)
VH's profile is supposed to have been similar to Chopin's (see CD 47), but as we can see on this imaginative cover it is not unlike Liszt's or Rachmaninoff's, either. The Mephisto Waltz is a travesty that should never have been released, though the middle section contains some ravishing playing. And the coda is absolutely insane, never mind that it has little to do with Liszt's original. Rachmaninoff's Humoresque receives here its definitive performance. Nobody, not even the composer himself, has matched VH's drive, precision and sonority. Pretty much the same is true for the meditative, and often underestimated, Barcarolle. As for Schumann's Humoreske, I have never met an informed opinion which does not consider this one of VH's finest recordings from the late 1970s.


CD 33: 
The Horowitz Concerts, 1979/80 
(RCA, 1980)
Classic cover. VH's foray into late Schumann is pure delight, as is the glittering performance of Mendelssohn. Rachmaninoff's Sonata is not quite on par with the stunning 1968 live recording (CD 46), but neither is it much inferior. The torrent of sound towards the end of the finale is actually more impressive here. 


CD 34: 
Horowitz at the Met 
(RCA, 1981, Live)
Indifferent cover. Stupendous playing. Contains the definitive G minor prelude (such power! such singing line! such panache! such control!), a mind-blowing rendition of Liszt's Second Ballade (unpalatable to some refined souls), a pretty good one of Chopin's Fourth and six gems by Scarlatti. Not bad for an old man (VH had recently turned 78 when this was recorded on 1 November 1981 in the Metropolitan).


CD 35: 
Horowitz on Tour, 1979/1980 
(RCA, 1977-80)
How much of these pieces was recorded in concert and how much in rehearsal is not clear, but there are some fine performances here. The Barcarolle is profoundly different in a myriad of details from the earlier live (1967, CD 60a) and studio (1957, CD 21) recordings. The "Black Keys" and Op. 25 No. 7 are more similar to their studio counterparts (CD 40 & 47, respectively), but nonetheless beautifully played for that. Of the Rachmaninoff pieces, the Musical Moment is the most important because it is VH's only recording. Clementi is a complete waste of time and effort.


CD 36: 
Horowitz in London 
(RCA, 1982, Live)
Historically important but musically mediocre concert. VH was far from his best. This album should not have been released. Chopin's First Ballade and Polonaise-Fantaisie are forced and laboured. The Scarlatti sonatas and the especially Scriabin's Etude Op. 8 No. 12 are excellent, though. The Scriabin is actually the finest VH ever committed on record, far superior to the much faster and more monotonous versions from the 1960s (CD 39 & 44). In his last years for DG (1985-89), he recorded the etude again and played it in concert a good deal, but he never again produced quite such a maelstrom of sound as he did in London. Note that this is a different performance than the one on the Horowitz in London video.


CD 37: 
Scarlatti, Chopin, Scriabin, etc. 
(RCA, 1928-75, never released on LP)
A nice collection of "outtakes" that never made it to LP. The absolute highlight is the rare 1957 version of Carmen, titled here Carmen Fantasy. Twice longer than the other versions and more like a jazz improvisation, it is a fascinating piece. It is somewhat incongruously coupled with the much different 1928 recording, which is a virtuoso tour de force. The Stars and Stripes is the studio version (cf. the live one on CD 20). The Scarlatti sonatas, the Liszt Valse, the Chopin Nocturne Op. 72 No. 1 (what a music for a 17-year-old to compose!) and Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4 are as beautifully played as only VH could. Poulenc's Presto is great fun.


CD 38: 
Columbia Records presents Vladimir Horowitz 
(Columbia, 1962)
I am in the minority who likes this version of Chopin's Second Sonata much less than the first one for RCA (CD 5 & 12). The only advantage of this remake is the omission of the first-movement repeat. Otherwise it's far too impersonal: too much Chopin, too little Horowitz. The gems on this disc are the Rachmaninoff Etudes, especially the famous Op. 39 No. 5 which is given an impassioned performance, and VH's arrangement of the 19th Hungarian Rhapsody, a real show-stopper. The sound is crystal clear and natural, much better than RCA's - indeed, better than many later Columbia albums, notably the studio recordings from the early 1970s. Oddly enough, the live recordings from the Columbia years generally have fuller and more natural sound.


CD 39: 
The Sound of Horowitz 
(Columbia, 1962)
This is a fine album, but, all the same, everything on it - except the Toccata - Horowitz has done better elsewhere. The only possible exception is the trio of Scarlatti sonatas. For Kinderszenen, see his first (1950, CD 4) and last recording (1987, Vienna, Live, DG, CD+DVD) of this lovely cycle. For the Scriabin's Etudes, see the live recordings from London (1982, CD 36, Op. 8/12) and Moscow (1986, DG, Op. 2/1). For the Schubert Impromptu, see again the 1987 Vienna concert (DVD only). 


CD 40: 
Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin 
(Columbia, 1963)
As the front cover states, everything on this disc except the First Scherzo (not on par with the incandescent renditions from the 1950s, CD 14 & 16a) was new to VH's discography. The Pathetique is fantastic, with beautifully singing Adagio sostenuto and dashing outer movements. The Revolutionary Etude VH re-recorded in 1972 (CD 51); Op. 25 No. 7 is available in a 1980 live performance (CD 35). The 1963 performances here are just as fine, but hardly show VH at his best.


CD 41: 
Horowitz plays Scarlatti (Columbia, 1964)
The purists may foam at the mouth as much as they like, but that will not change the obvious truth: Scarlatti on modern concert grand sounds just gorgeous. On harpsichord, he is unlistenable, or at best deadly dull. VH's sparkling and mischievous Scarlatti is one of the greatest glories of the gramophone. You would never think twelve of his sonatas in a row could be that engrossing. In the right hands, they could. The "outtakes" (sonatas recorded at the same sessions but omitted from the original album) can be found on CD 53a. They were previously released on Vol. 2 of The Complete Masterworks (Sony, 1993).


CD 42a/b: 
An Historic Return: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall 
(Columbia, 1965, Live)

You can compare with the unedited version (CD 57a/b) and see how terrible that notorious coda of the second movement of Schumann's Fantaisie really was. I find even the edited version, this one, not particularly spectacular. (I'm no fan of musical patriotism, but the best performance of this coda I've ever heard is Vesselin Stanev on Gega New.) The rest of the Schumann, indeed the rest of the recital, is VH at his very best. Particularly interesting is to compare this rendition of Chopin's First Ballade with the one from the TV concert less than three years later (CD 44). There may be no two more different interpretations that close in time in his complete discography.


CD 43a/b: 
Horowitz in Concert 
(Columbia, 1966, Live)

This is VH at his most awe-inspiring best, and recorded in fine sound at that. The absolute standout is Vallee d'Obermann. This performance combines power and poetry as no other I know of. It reveals the true greatness of the piece as well as of Liszt as a composer. This is a landmark in the Lisztian discography for solo piano. No other pianist has equalled, let alone surpassed, VH there. The rest is just as fine, even if the Mozart sonata is slightly fussy. Beethoven's 32 Variations has, unfortunately, never been released; it's not included in the still hot set The Unreleased Live Recordings 1966-1983 either. It's a shame. It would be fascinating to compare this performance with VH's early one from 1934. And the sound will no doubt be highly superior.


CD 44: 
Horowitz on Television 
(Columbia, 1968, Live)
Light program of 50 minutes or so suitable for the average TV fan which ends with VH's best known (and indeed finest) rendition of Carmen. It has been copied by many modern virtuosos (e.g. Volodos and Kissin), but none of them is in the same league when it comes to staggering virtuosity allied to mature musicianship. This is the same performance that was included in the The Art of Piano DVD some years ago, but the sound here is considerably better. Chopin's Ballade and Polonaise, especially the latter of which this is VH's only commercial recording, are played with rare sense for drama. The Scriabin Etude has been superseded (CD 36), but the Arabeske may be the best VH ever did.


CD 45: 
Schumann 
(Columbia, 1969)
This is the justly legendary 1969 Kreisleriana. Makes for an engrossing comparison with the late, more relaxed and more poetic, account for DG (1985). Wonderful cover, by the way, bringing to mind the duality in Horowitz, Schumann and indeed any of us. One of the artist's supreme duties is to make us, the unfortunately unartistic folk, aware of this duality and better able to cope with it.


CD 46: 
Horowitz plays Rachmaninoff 
(Columbia, 1967-68)
Here is the apocalyptic 1968 recording of the Second Sonata. There may have been more musical and subtle performances of this mammoth work, but nobody has ever come close to VH's blend of raw power and visceral excitement. The same is true of the Etude Op. 39 No. 9. Richter and Ashkenazy may be more sensitive to the melodic lines, but neither has anything like VH's galvanising power.


CD 47: 
Horowitz plays Chopin 
(Columbia, 1966-71)
Fine cover. VH was reportedly not unaware of his profile resemblance to Chopin. Except for the Polonaise-Fantaisie, recorded live in 1966 and far superior to the febrile 1951 recording (also live, CD 20), this is not his best Chopinesque playing. Op. 53 has neither the drive of the 1945 recording (CD 7), nor the aristocratic dignity of the late accounts for DG (1985-87). As far as the deservedly seldom played Introduction and Rondo is concerned, VH plays it with compelling virtuosity, but I do wonder why he chose it in the first place. I wish he had re-recorded the Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22, in much better sound than his great 1945 rendition (CD 7, 25a & 27). The liner notes quote extensively VH. 


CD 48: 
Horowitz plays Scriabin 
(Columbia, 1966-72)
This is an interesting disc, a much better place for the Scriabin neophyte than the Third Sonata and the preludes (CD 18). Yes, the Tenth Sonata is decidedly weird, but some of the etudes, notably Op. 8 No. 11 and the "murderous" (Schonberg) Op. 42 No. 5, are beautiful pieces. The finale with Vers la flamme is like a musical depiction of Armageddon. Apart from a 1974 performance in the otherwise indifferent hotchpotch of a film Vladimir Horowitz: A Reminiscence, this is VH's only recording of this strange piece. His tongue-in-cheek comments in the film provide a charming counterpoint to the bleakness of the work. "This is a very strange music, very percussive." To the Tonmeister: "Be prepared for a big sound." Before sitting down to give an effortless performance: "If I don't collapse, that's all right." 


CD 49: 
Beethoven & Schubert 
(Columbia, 1972-73)
Harold Schonberg has described the finale in this recording of the Moonlight Sonata as "positively perverse". I believe he was being too harsh, but the Schubert is certainly the best in this album. Three of the four Impromptus are VH's first and last recordings. Only Op. 90 No. 4 was re-recorded later for DG (1985), but the earlier account stands well on its own. The Impromptus contain some of Schubert's finest music, and VH plays both the lyrical and the dramatic with taste. As in the Beethoven sonatas, he is rather "Classical" and tries to avoid pronounced "Romanticisms" (for a sweeping Romantic impromptus, see Aldo Ciccolini on EMI), but it works swimmingly. Unfortunately, the brittle sound leaves something to be desired.


CD 50: 
Appassionata & Waldstein Sonatas 
(Columbia, 1972)
Apart from the sound, these performances are fairly similar to the old ones (CD 19 & 24). I wonder why VH re-recorded them at all. Contractual obligations perhaps? Nevertheless, these are fine performances and the improved sound gives you the opportunity to appreciate to the full VH's imaginative use of the inner voices, especially in the Waldstein. The liner notes by Thomas Frost contain a nice discussion of Beethoven and the piano.


CD 51: 
New Recordings of Chopin 
(Columbia, 1968-73)
Like his previous Chopin album for Columbia (CD 47), this is not VH at his best. The polonaise is particularly bland, impersonal and boring. There is a live recording from 1951 (CD 59a), but it is just as dull as this one. VH evidently didn't like the piece. As Harold Schonberg has noted: "He plays it doggedly and metronomically, taking all repeats, hitting all the notes, but sounding bored." The mazurkas are lovely, as always with VH, but the etudes are no improvement over the old recordings (CD 14, 27 & 40). The Waltz, a live recording from 1968, is wonderful and VH's only officially released since 1946 (which we have thrice: CD 7, 26, 27). The back cover curiously labels "Raindrop" the sixth prelude, not the fifteenth as usual.


CD 52a/b: 
Concert of the Century 
(Columbia, 1976, Live)

A rare chance to hear VH as accompanist and chamber musician. The experience is enlightening. 


CD 53a/b: 
Compilation of posthumously issued recordings 
(Columbia, 1961-72)

Outtakes from the Columbia years, released posthumously and not always in service of VH's memory. For example, Beethoven's Op. 101 is one of his worst recordings, though still fascinating. A hallmark of genius is that even his failures are more interesting than the successes of ordinary folk. The demonic Scherzo & Marsch, one of Liszt's few original works that don't show much depth, is full of dazzling virtuosity if not much else. VH apparently played it live just once (this recording). More Clementi is not welcome, but more Scarlatti certainly is. These six sonatas are "outtakes" from the legendary 1964 LP (CD 41). By the way, these discs contain, among other things, the complete contents of Discovered Treasures, the 1992 compilation of previously unreleased studio recordings for Columbia. 


CD 54: 
The Private Collection, Vol. 1 
(RCA, 1945-50, Live)
All 13 pieces new to VH's discography. Among them are his only recording of "un-Busonified" Bach, Rachmaninoff's Etude Op. 39 No. 7, two of Liszt's Consolations played with the requisite tenderness and a somewhat incoherent but still monumental rendition of Chopin's F minor Fantaisie. The sound is not stellar, but it's quite listenable. 


CD 55: 
The Private Collection, Vol. 2 
(RCA, 1945-49, Live)
The tracklisting of this disc is wrong, Kabalevsky's preludes come before his Second Sonata, not at the end. All pieces new to VH's discography, but the selection is much less interesting than Vol. 1.

[Here should have been the other three volumes of The Private Collection, but they seem to have been released too late to be included. The Liszt Sonata from 1949 has already been mentioned. It is VH's best recording - by far! - of this monumental piece yet released. Further highlights include a breathtaking "Islamey" and a wonderful Schumann Fantaisie. One "lowlight" is Liszt's Second Legende. It sounds more like a Hungarian rhapsody than like a religious ecstasy. Both VH's tempi and tampering are highly questionable, to say the very least. Possibly his worst recording released to date.]


CD 56a/b: 
Horowitz ReDiscovered 
(RCA, 1975, Live)

High-voltage pianism. Explosive indeed. Musically audacious and compelling. The Chopin Scherzo and the Rachmaninoff Etudes have some moments that verge on chaos. But VH never really loses control, and the walk on the edge is, to say the least, memorable. Au bord d'une source is of particular interest because it is VH's first recording since 1951 (and the last one if we don't count the outtakes from The Last Romantic). Interesting liner notes by Harris Goldsmith, including some quotes from a review by Harold Schonberg, but note his stupendous mistake ("...comeback on May 9, 1965, after twenty-two yeas of reclusive non-concertizing..."). The sound is fine.


CD 57a/b: 
Live and Unedited 
(Sony, 1962-65, Live)

Superfluous release. The notorious mess in the coda of the second movement of Schumann's Fantaisie is not so terrible after all. Instead of unedited and previously unreleased live recordings from the Sony vaults, we get as a filler another duplication, the 1962 recording of Kinderszenen (CD 39). The DVD with outtakes from The Last Romantic that was part of the original 2003 set is omitted here, of course.


CD 58: 
The Last Recording 
(Sony, 1989)
The sentimental value of this disc is counterbalanced by great musical value. All pieces new to the VH discography. The last one to be recorded, Liszt's gloomy Prelude, was completed just four days before his death. The Liebestod was of course placed last on the disc and, given the extra-musical circumstances, it has never sounded more poignant. The middle section of the Fantaisie-Impromptu is faster than is customary nowadays, but it sounds surprisingly lovely. Pretty good way for an 86-year-old to finish a recording career of 61 years. 


CD 59a/b: 
Previously unreleased recital: March 5, 1951 
(RCA, Live)

The Sixth Hungarian rhapsody is a bombshell: just as stunning technically as the studio version (CD 12), yet more musical. Mozart's KV 333 is not on par with VH's late recording for DG (1987), but it's a fine performance on its own. The Prokofieff is even better than the studio version (CD 2). The sound is shrill and often unpleasant, however.


CD 60a/b: 
Previously unreleased recital: March 13, 1967 
(Columbia, Live)

Terrific recital in very fine sound. Beethoven's Op. 101 is just as problematic as ever, but Rachmaninoff's Op. 39 No. 5 and Carmen are fantastic. The latter is remarkable for some differences in the coda compared to the only one-year-younger version from the TV concert (CD 44). The same comparison as regards Chopin's Op. 44 is also illuminating. The big problem with this polonaise is the highly repetitious middle section. It can be awfully boring. Not here. By varying the dynamics and the tempo, VH achieves variety and novelty in what usually sounds like monotonous repetition.


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