Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Review: The Magic of Horowitz - DG, 2003, 2CD+DVD

The Magic of Horowitz

Deutsche Grammophon, 2003.
Digipak. 2CD+DVD.
Liner notes by Thomas Frost, Edward Greenfield and Vladimir Horowitz.


CD 1 [71’32]:
[1] Schubert-Liszt: Valse-Caprice No. 6 (from Soirées de Vienne)
[2] Schubert-Liszt: Ständchen (from Schwanengesang)
[3] Liszt: Valse oubliée No. 1
[4] Chopin: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4
[5] Scriabin: Etude in D sharp minor, Op. 2 No. 1
[6] Scriabin: Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 8 No. 12
[7] Schubert: Impromptu in B flat major, D 935 No. 3
[8] Schubert-Tausig: Military March D 733 No. 1
[9] Scarlatti: Sonata in E major, K. 135 (L. 224)
[10] Bach-Busoni: Choral Prelude “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”
[11] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G major, Op. 32 No. 5
[12] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12
[13] Liszt: Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (from Années de Pèlerinage, 2e année, Italie)
[14] Chopin: Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 30 No. 4
[15] Schumann: Träumerei (from Kinderszenen)
[16] Rachmaninoff: Polka de W. R.

CD 2 [71’01]:
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
[1] Allegro (cadenza: Ferruccio Busoni)
[2] Adagio
[3] Allegro assai
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
Carlo Maria Giulini
Schumann: Kreisleriana Op. 16
[4] Auserst bewegt
[5] Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch
[6] Sehr aufgeregt
[7] Sehr langsam
[8] Sehr lebahaft
[9] Sehr langsam
[10] Sehr rasch
[11] Schnell und spielend
[12] Studio chatter
[13] Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K. 511*
[14] Liszt-Horowitz: Ehemals (from Weihnachtsbaum, No. 10)*
[15] Schubert: Moment musical in F minor, D 780 No. 3*

*Previously unreleased!

DVD Video [50’14]:
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
1. Allegro (cadenza: Ferruccio Busoni)
2. Adagio
3. Allegro assai
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
Carlo Maria Giulini
[1] Arrival – preparing to record (opening credits)
[2] Recording of the first movement
[3] An impromptu press conference
[4] Recording of the second movement
[5] Conversation
[6] Playback
[7] Recording of the third movement (part)
[8] Recording of the third movement – retake (complete)
[9] Conversation (end credits)

4/1985, Horowitz’s Home, New York (CD 1: 4-5, 10);
9-10/1985, RCA Studio A, New York (CD 1: 3, 6-9; CD 2: 4-11*);
3/1986, New York (CD 1: 1-2)
4/1986, Moscow Conservatory, Live (CD 1: 11-16)
3/1987, Albanella Studios, Milan (CD 2: 1-3**; DVD)
6/1987, Grosse Musikhalle, Hamburg (CD 2: 15)
6/1988, Grace Rainey Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (CD 2: 14)
12/1988 & 1/1989: Horowitz’s Home, New York (CD 2: 12-13)

*Wrongly given in the booklet “1-8”!
**Wrongly given in the booklet “9-11”!
Some recordings are simply skipped in the booklet!

Magical playing indeed!

This handsome set presents the “greatest hits” of Vladimir Horowitz from his Indian summer for Deutsche Grammophon (1985-89). All of them demonstrate unique and compelling musical vision. Three of them had never been released before. The bonus DVD is pure delight and not available separately. The lavish booklet contains some rare photos and excellent liner notes by people who know what they are writing about. But before going into some detail about the contents, a few words about the all-important historical background.

The last years of Vladimir Horowitz are one of the great fairy tales in modern music history – except that they actually happened. In the early 1980s, Horowitz was going through the most severe depression in his life. He was taking heavy medications and his playing was becoming increasingly erratic, a mere shadow of his finest years. After the disastrous Tokyo concerts in June 1983, aptly described by his wife as “funeral”, Horowitz disappeared. This was nothing new. He had suffered from depression and retired from the stage on three previous occasions during his long life. But this time it was different. Horowitz was 80 years old. Nobody believed he would recover and play again. In April 1985, almost two years after the Tokyo affair, he resurrected himself. The movie The Last Romantic, shot mostly in his New York home, contained plenty of music (released also on CD ) and showed that, far from being dead, Horowitz was very alive and playing. Something of his virtuosity had been lost, of course, but new serenity had entered into his interpretations; they had become more relaxed and, if anything, more fascinating than before. The rest is best left in the words of Thomas Frost:

This collection of recordings from the last five years of Vladimir Horowitz’s life (1985–89) presents the phenomenal artist at the height of his musical maturity. That period, the most prolific and possibly the happiest of his life, was also filled with drama, personal triumphs and renewed world recognition. His accomplishments were astounding: at the age of 82 Horowitz returned to his Russian homeland after a 61-year absence to play recitals in Moscow and Leningrad – the Moscow recital was televised live to Western Europe and the United States, later to the rest of the world; he gave recitals to sold-out houses in New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Milan, Amsterdam, Vienna and Hamburg; he made seven CDs that included his first recording of a Mozart concerto as well as other pieces that he never committed to disc before; he was featured in three television films; he received the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan at the White House and his 23rd Grammy award at Radio City in New York.

The variety and the quality of these late recordings are extraordinary. Horowitz was not in the least content to repeat the old repertoire in the old way. Whatever technical shortcomings he had in those years, he turned them into artistic advantages. Some of the pieces he played for decades reached their finest interpretations only in his last years. The best example is Chopin’s famous Polonaise Op. 53 (unfortunately and unforgivably not included here). Any late recording of this lovely piece (and there are one studio and countless live takes) bears little resemblance to the early versions (RCA, 1945; Columbia, 1971). In his twilight years, Horowitz slowed down and added numerous new accents. The result is a virtually new and, for my part, superior piece to his early recordings – if not indeed to what Chopin wrote himself. On a smaller scale, you can compare the late interpretations of Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca and Bach-Busoni’s Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland with the ones Horowitz recorded in 1951 and 1947, respectively. The recordings are as different as black and white. I am not saying black is better than white or vice versa. I simply want to stress that Horowitz never grew stale: he continued to develop until the end of his life.

Then there is the new repertoire. I have heard Horowitz described as a “cowardly pianist” because he never strayed far from the so-called “standard repertoire”. I would reverse this argument. I consider cowardly pianists who deliberately keep out of this repertoire, constantly “discovering” forgotten (usually rightly so) composers and works. This is an elegant way to avoid the fierce competition in an overcrowded field and the critical onslaught from superficial journalists ever so keen on comparisons (the first evidence that a critical faculty is missing). It never occurs to such pianists that there might be a reason why the pieces they play have never become popular with the audience, for example because they are perfectly mediocre stuff. That said, all his life Horowitz played and recorded some rather obscure pieces. In his youth, back in the 1930s, he championed works like Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, all of them repertoire staples today – and all of them badly neglected back then. Later, in the 1940s, he played (and even recorded) sonatas by Barber, Prokofiev and Kabalevsky, little known then and forgotten today (except for Prokofiev, of course); still later, he did his best to popularise Scriabin, Scarlatti and Clementi. This is hardly a narrow repertoire.

Horowitz never stopped adding new pieces to his discography (his last recording, made for Sony just a few days before his death in November 1989, consisted entirely of such pieces). Three works in this set (CD 1: 1, 2, 7) were completely new to him: he had not even played them in public, much less recorded, before. It so happens that they are among his finest recordings. The famous Ständchen is played with exquisite tenderness and superb command of the echo-like effects. As usual, Horowitz invests even the most hackneyed piece with a new life. The sixth Valse-Caprice, based on Schubert but really Liszt’s composition, Horowitz loved so much that he played it on every one of his recitals in the late 1980s. It is an enchanting combination of bravura and sensuous charm. Finally, Schubert’s set of variations (Impromptu D 935 No. 3) also featured regularly in his last recitals, but there is no account of his having played it earlier in his career. (By the way, Horowitz recorded altogether six of Schubert’s eight impromptus for Columbia and DG between 1962 and 1985; only the first and the last, D 899 No. 3 and D 935 No. 4, did he never play or record.) Last but not least, Tausig’s brilliant arrangement of Schubert’s Marche Militaire (originally for four hands) he had played only twice in concert, in 1932 and 1942, before he came to record it in 1985. Light stuff and sheer fun, it is treated by Horowitz with his customary seriousness.

Actually, the three “new recordings” [CD 2: 13-15] wonderfully illustrate the breadth of Horowitz’s repertoire. One of them is famous (Schubert), one is woefully seldom played or recorded (Mozart), and one is actually never played or recorded (Liszt). Incidentally, Horowitz played only the Schubert in concert, and only in his last years; the other two are absent from his concerto- and discography. So much for Horowitz’s “cowardly repertoire”! Thomas Frost, who was the producer of nearly all recordings Horowitz made not only for DG, but earlier (1962-73) for Columbia as well, explains the origins of these recordings:

The Mozart Rondo in A minor was recorded during the several sessions in December 1988 and January 1989 that resulted in the CD “Horowitz at Home.” At that time Horowitz chose not to include it in the program in order to avoid a preponderance of Mozart. We have included some studio chatter during which Horowitz derides with sarcastic humor the very slow tempos at which this piece has been recorded by some of his contemporaries. The Horowitz transcription of Liszt’s “Ehemals” (no. 10 from his Weihnachtsbaum) was recorded during sound tests in New York on 24 June 1988. He played it through only once. Schubert’s Moment musical in F minor was an encore he played at his last public concert, on 21 June 1987 in Hamburg.  

Schubert’s Musical Moment has since been released as part of Horowitz in Hamburg: The Last Concert (2008). The other two pieces, so far as I know, have never been released elsewhere.

The DVD contains recording sessions of the complete Concerto, including a retake of the third movement. The latter is a fine piece of theatre. Mr Frost stopped the recording in the beginning and asked Mr Horowitz to play “not so Russian”. (Nice publicity stunt, Thomas!) In between there is, as Mr Frost says, “some interesting, informative and entertaining documentary material.” This includes an improvised press conference in which journalists ask their usual nonsense (“Always the same questions”, snorts Wanda) and Horowitz declares that for him Mozart is “number 1”. Volodya is charmingly childish between takes. A lady tells him she likes his tie, whereupon he goes and tells everybody that she likes his tie better than his playing. He seems obliging enough, harmlessly repeating hackneyed stories (e.g. about his frustrated ambitions as composer), but I can imagine how difficult it could have been to handle the man in private, or even during recording sessions. Once he seats himself at the piano, however, there is no more fooling around. He might warm up his fingers with bits of pieces or improvise a bit, but in a few minutes he is ready to record. In those autumnal years, the nervous tension that made Horowitz tremble at the keyboard in his prime was gone, but there was the same intense concentration and complete absorption in the music. The contrast between the artist producing heavenly sounds and the old man chattering nonsense is very effective. In short, this is a fantastic documentary indispensable for Horowitz fans.

Volodya and Francois.

The liner notes by Edward Greenfield and Vladimir Horowitz are taken from the original CD releases of Horowitz plays Mozart (1987) and Horowitz at Home (1989), respectively. Mr Greenfield quotes the pianist extensively and there is some repetition, but it's no big deal. Horowitz has a number of uncommonly interesting things to say about performance practice and musical appreciation. Those who still dismiss him as a brainless technician should read his words. Then again, probably it would be like describing the rainbow to a blind man. Make no mistake, Horowitz was not an intellectual. Like all great artists, his response to music was largely emotional and he built his interpretations on instinct and intuition rather than on reflection and scholarship. But, I hasten to add, it is totally wrong to infer from this that Horowitz, and other pianists who from his generation, did not think at all about the music he played. Far from it! He was, for example, an avid reader of composers’ letters (especially Mozart’s) and drew a great deal of inspiration from them. Let Volodya explain his heretical ideas in his own words (repetition of things worth repeating is deliberately preserved):

[Line notes by Vladimir Horowitz, edited by Thomas Frost – complete:]

Classical, Romantic, Modern, Neo-Romantic! These labels may be convenient for musicologists, but they have nothing to do with composing or performing. In fact, they may be more of a hindrance than a help in the education of young performers. All music is the expression of feelings, and feelings do not change over the centuries. Style and form change, but not the basic human emotions. Purists would have us believe that music from the so-called Classical period should be performed with emotional restraint, while so-called Romantic music should be played with emotional freedom. Such advice has often resulted in exaggeration: overindulgent, uncontrolled performances of Romantic music and dry, sterile, dull performances of Classical music.

As far as Mozart is concerned, we know from his letters that he showed great concern for musical expression: he continually criticized performers whose playing lacked freedom for their “mechanical execution” and the absence of “taste and feeling”. As for Beethoven, historical accounts describe his playing as very free and emotional – the trademark of a Romantic.

All my life, ever since I was a young man, I have considered music of all periods romantic. There is, of course, an objective, intellectual component to music insofar as its formal structure is concerned; but when it comes to performance, what is required is not interpretation but a process of subjective re-creation.

The notation of a composer is a mere skeleton that the performer must endow with flesh and blood, so that the music comes to life and speaks to an audience. The belief that going back to an Urtext will ensure a convincing performance is an illusion. An audience does not respond to intellectual concepts, only to the communication of feelings.

A dictionary definition of “romantic” usually includes the following: “Displaying or expressing love or strong affection; ardent, passionate, fervent.” I cannot name a single great composer of any period who did not possess these qualities. Isn’t, then, all music romantic? And shouldn’t the performer listen to his heart rather than to intellectual concepts of how to play Classical, Romantic or any other type of music?

Of course, mastery implies control – in music as well as in life. But control that is creative does not limit or restrain feelings or spontaneity. It is rather a setting of standards, limits and boundaries in regard to taste, style and what is appropriate to each composer. In order to become a truly re-creative performer, and not merely an instrumental wizard, one needs three ingredients in equal measure: a trained, disciplined mind, full of imagination; a free and giving heart; and a Gradus ad Parnassum command of instrumental skill. Few musicians ever reach artistic heights with these three ingredients evenly balanced. This is what I have been striving for all my life.

[Liner notes by Thomas Frost:]

Spontaneity was a hallmark of any Horowitz performance. He never played a piece exactly the same way and was proud of that. “The score is not a Bible… Chopin never played his own pieces the same way twice,” he liked to say. His quick, retentive and clear mind combined with a superb musculature allowed him to indulge his aversion to repetitious practicing. This had the great advantage of keeping his performances fresh. Once he had a general concept of a piece, he rehearsed it primarily in his head, keeping his fingers in shape by improvising and playing other pieces. Of spontaneity he said: “One must have very clear intentions, a clear conception of the spirit of the music and its large framework. The Germans call it Auffassung. And when you have that, you can leave smaller details to the spur of the moment. Sometimes it is a question of color. I know the color of each section, but the exact shade is better left to the inspiration of the moment.”

[Liner notes by Edward Greenfield:]

Horowitz loved the music of Mozart all his life, and one of his favorite pastimes was reading the composer’s letters. He spoke enthusiastically about the rich body of information they contain: “I am not interested in the speculation of others on the subject how to play Mozart – only in what the composer himself had to say. We are very fortunate to have so many wonderful and instructive letters, and the key to interpreting his music can be found in them. One of the most important facts that comes to light is Mozart’s emphasis on feeling and expression in music-making. He continually criticized his contemporaries for mechanical, meaningless virtuosity and a lack of feeling and sensitivity. We can see in his letters that he was a sensuous, earthly man with a wide range of emotions. He expressed them all in his music, and in that sense he was really a Romantic composer. To approach him as if he were a pretty, rococo porcelain figurine on a pedestal is to rob his music of its essential, universal character, its power to evoke joy as well as tears. Pablo Casals once told me that Mozart should be played like Chopin and Chopin like Mozart!”

There is nothing terribly original in these remarks. But there is some pretty thought-provoking, even profound, stuff. How many modern virtuosos read Mozart’s letters? Or play Mozart’s sonatas at all?

I have but two minor complaints, one about the presentation and one about the selection. The booklet is simply tucked inside the digipak without being fastened; it is apt to slip out. To be sure, it is entirely a matter of personal taste which recordings represent Horowitz at his best. Still – do we need Mozart’s concerto twice? You can compare, if you are so inclined, both versions and determine how much of the recording sessions shown on the video actually went into the audio recording. I would rather concentrate on the music, and for this one copy is quite enough. In short, the DVD should have been retained, but the audio version should have been exchanged for something else, for example the lovely recording, made at the same time and place, of Mozart’s Sonata KV 333. That aside, this is a perfect set.

Everybody seems to be having a great time - except the baby.

The Magic of Horowitz is now some 12 years old, but used copies are still available at very decent prices. Horowitz buffs and neophytes alike are not likely to regret purchasing the set. A piece of advice to the latter group: do not forget that the late Horowitz is only one of many. There are at least three other Horowitzes through the years, conveniently separated by his recording companies (EMI, RCA, Columbia/Sony; indeed, there are two Horowitzes for RCA alone, one from the late 40s/early 50s and one from the late 70s/early 80s). Each one of these four artists, with the possible exception of the first, has his own pros and cons. Knowledge of only one or two Horowitzes, no matter how intimate, is inevitably warped. When you have surveyed the whole of his life and recorded legacy, there emerges a work of art, a genuine masterpiece. If Volodya had written an autobiography, he might well have titled it What a Life!

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