CD REVIEW Eschewing Precision

Horowitz Comes Up Scarce on Technique, Abundant in Interpretation

Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall — The Private Collection: Mussorgsky & Liszt

Sony Masterworks

June 30, 2009

My piano teacher used to cringe at the mention of Vladimir Horowitz. The Russian pianist was known for his particularly bad posture: sitting with the keyboard chest-level, Horowitz’s fingers would lie flat on the keys, tips almost pointed upwards as he played. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine another twentieth-century pianist who had such influence on the piano literature and the face of piano performance. Despite his questionable stance at the piano, Horowitz managed startling technical prowess at the keyboard, often performing musical acrobatics that were inaccessible to his contemporaries, premiering works both composers and performers thought impossible and forever changing what was considered par for his medium.

So it’s worth taking a listen to what the pianist had to say when it came to piano. In his final years, Horowitz donated multiple recordings of live performances to Yale University. Yale, in conjunction with Sony Masterworks, is beginning to release these recordings to the public. The most recent of these recordings is a concert in 1949 at Carnegie Hall showcasing two standard works of the Romantic piano repertoire: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Franz Liszt’s b minor Sonata.

It’s surprising to say, but both pieces on this release often find Horowitz at a technical nadir. Certainly, a few errors are expected from a live performance — most studio recordings are simply the pasted-together bests of multiple failed takes and much of this weakness becomes evident when the artist appears live — but Horowitz often fumbles non-trivially on this particular recording even in comparison to his other live performances. Clean scales in Mussorgsky’s work find themselves fumbled and uncharacteristically muddied; crisp chorale passages are not infrequently tinged with incorrect notes and alien dissonances. Perhaps most disappointing is the final movement of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, a musical rendition of the majestic Great Gate at Kiev. This particular recording often pushes the tempo too far, resulting in a grand finale that frequently dissolves into a raucous cacophony.

Liszt’s Sonata is no different. While initial statements of the main theme of the exposition maintain their clarity in the Lento assai, reiterations often lose their integrity in the Allegro energico that follows, again, devolving into a surprising wash of incorrect notes and more sturm und drang than passionate energy.

It’s this sense of drama, constant through both works, that is particularly surprising about these recordings. Horowitz’s art classically focuses on technically pristine renditions of incredibly difficult works, often trading interpretive flexibility for an almost mechanical interpretation of the musical page; if anything, its this mechanical precision that was perceived as ineffective interpretation and most plagued the pianist’s reception with critics of his day. In these recordings however, the marmoreal Horowitz allows some passages to warm, others to be dramatic, still others to grow into poignantly moving scenes, sometimes, true to his art, revealing more enthusiasm and color than the composers themselves may have thought possible.

It’s obvious why the aged Horowitz didn’t release these performances to the public: despite almost constant praise at the concert hall, Horowitz was known for his obsession over his public appeal. These debilitating insecurities on the stage caused no less than three major breaks in his public performing career during the peak of his talents. These recordings represent a younger Horowitz uncharacteristically concerned more with interpretation than precision — a concept the older Horowitz would almost certainly retrospectively consider mere blights on his otherwise impeccable name.

But viewing both performances on this recent release through the lens of precision seems to lead only to myopia; these recordings are valuable on their merit as a unique glimpse into a Horowitz capable of feeling and interpreting in ways that are still very modern. Now more than sixty years old, this Vladimir Horowitz, recently exhumed from the Yale libraries, still manages to speak tomes on standards of the repertoire.