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Vladimir Horowitz: the tiger who burnt bright

The German word Klaviertiger — which hardly needs translation — might have been invented to describe the musical and technical prowess of the young Ukrainian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who shot to international stardom when he provoked a sensation as a last-minute replacement in a virtuoso tour de force, Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Piano Concerto. That was on January 20, 1926, in Hamburg, and news of the young firebrand’s success ensured a sellout of the repeat concert. Two years later, the by then 24-year-old scored an even bigger triumph, with the New York public, at Carnegie Hall, despite disagreements with the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, over tempi: the young Horowitz was an impetuous speed merchant in a hurry, but capable of huge sonorities unquenchable by any opening of the orchestral floodgates.

So the “legend” of the 20th century’s most high-profile pianist began, and, with it, the controversy. Just over 20 years after his death, he remains a contentious figure, idolised for his technical wizardry and mercurial persona among his many devotees, but grudgingly acclaimed by the more fastidious, who argue that his flashy showmanship blinded — or rather deafened — his fans to a certain musical superficiality, especially in the central Austro-German repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

Yet, despite the critical caveats, he remains a towering figure. Sony Music has just collected together for the first time all his recordings for RCA and Columbia (CBS), on 70 CDs, in its desirable Original Jacket Collection series. This is the third Horowitz collection in the series, the previous two selecting highlights of the RCA/CBS disco graphy on 10 discs each. These CDs represent the greater part, but far from the whole story, of Horowitz’s sound legacy, covering his early years as America’s most fêted Klaviertiger and his final visit to Sony’s New York studios in October 1989, little more than two weeks before his death on November 5. The new Sony box has extra bait for Horowitz completists: two live recitals, from 1951 and 1967, issued in their entirety for the first time commercially. He recorded all of the music elsewhere, but the spont aneity of his interpretations — his essentially late-Romantic spirit — ensures that no two Horowitz performances are quite alike.

Where does Horowitz’s reputation stand today? Ten years ago, when Philips issued its 200-CD Great Pianists of the 20th Century, Tom Deacon, the series producer, averred that he was “indisputably the [century’s] greatest star of the piano. His breathtaking pianism and irresistible temperament captured the public as no other player could”.

Erica Worth, editor of the pianophile magazine Pianist, fell under Horowitz’s spell when she caught one of his later recitals in New York, at the Metropolitan Opera in 1986. “He’s a one-off, he really is,” she says. “His technique, those flat fingers flying — they almost turned upwards, and looked like wings. The strength and control of those floppy-looking fingers were just unique. That is quite shocking when you look at him on YouTube now. For that recital at the Met, I queued up from five o’clock in the morning to get a ticket. By that time, he was getting on in years, and he made a lot of errors, but his sound was still miraculously intact. His loud playing was that of a big Russian bear, but his soft playing had amazing clarity. I could hear it from the top of the gods.”

Worth, like Deacon, is a fully paid-up member of the fan club, but even the Horowitz detractors were forced to acknowledge his extraordinary gifts. His great, slightly older Polish contemporary, Artur Rubinstein, wrote vividly in his autobiography of his first experience of his young Ukrainian rival, at a Paris recital, fresh from his Hamburg triumph, in 1926: “There was much more than brilliance and technique; there was an easy elegance — the magic of something that defies description.” Yet Horowitz’s virtuosity left Rubinstein depressed: “Deep within myself, I felt I was the better musician... but, at the same time, I was conscious of my terrible defects — of my negligence of detail.” Of his rival’s later career, after the third of Horowitz’s four periods of public silence, Rubinstein was much more dismissive: “[He] returned to the concert life as the great virtuoso he always was, but in my view does not contribute anything to the art of music.”

That damnation with faint praise, once prevalent, has been reversed since Horowitz’s death. One of the surprises of the Philips Great Pianists edition was that the first of the Horowitz volumes was devoted to Schumann. His performance of Schumann’s Fan tasie Op 17 in the extraordinary Carnegie Hall recital that marked his return to concert life after the longest (12 years) of his public silences, in 1965, has always been prized as one of the finest accounts of this musically and technically demanding work. And Worth considers his Humoresque on the 1978-79 concerts album as “without doubt the best recording of this work”.

When Joseph Horowitz — no relation — interviewed another of Horowitz’s great contemporary rivals for his Conversations with Arrau (1982), he tried to draw the Chilean maestro, a Germanist in spirit, albeit with a Latin temperament, into a blanket criticism of the East European virtuosos Paderewski, Hoffmann, Godowsky, Horowitz and Rachmaninov. Arrau replied circumspectly: “Paderewski was not a great pianist. A very famous one, but not great. Hoffmann was another... Godowsky was one of the greatest technicians, but his playing was boring. Horowitz, he’s a special case. Tremendous electricity. Him I would call a great pianist.” Of one of Horowitz’s first concerts outside Russia, in Berlin, Arrau rhapsodises: “It was some of the most volcanic playing I had ever heard. I was sitting with my mother in the first row, and I was amazed at the things he could do, despite the stiffness of the arms.”

A special case, unquestionably. Listening to the “new” discs in the Original Jacket Collection, one gets a glimpse of that spur-of-the-moment Horowitz magic, particularly in the 1951 recital at Carnegie Hall. His rendition of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante is neither grand nor especially brilliant, but it is heart-stoppingly intimate, wistful and poetic. This is one of the moments that reveal Horowitz as a great musical mind. He remains, with the singers Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti, and the conductors Arturo Tosca nini, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, one of the towering figures of classical music in the recording era, and one whose celebrity and charisma took him to the hearts of people who never set foot in the concert hall.

The essential Horowitz:

Liszt Sonata in B minor

Recorded in 1932 by the 29-year-old virtuoso for HMV, this colossal account of Liszt’s great, arching tone-poem for piano, in which Beethoven and Schubert confront Wagner, has never really been surpassed for technical authority. At a bargain price on Naxos.

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 3

This electrifying performance has rarely been out of the catalogue since it was first issued nearly 60 years ago. The composer was an extravagant admirer of Horowitz’s playing: this is one of the essential Rachmaninov, as well as Horowitz, recordings (RCA/Sony Music).

Carnegie Hall recital, 1965

This staggering concert marked Horowitz’s return to the concert platform after 12 years of self-imposed retreat. To rapturous audience acclaim, he plays Bach-Busoni, Schumann’s Op 17 Fantasie in C, the F major Sonata and Poème by Scriabin and a Chopin Mazurka, Etude and Ballade. This is Horowitz live in the cornerstones of his repertoire (RCA/Sony Music).

Schumann: Kreisleriana

Horowitz’s late recordings of Schumann for Deutsche Grammophon give the lie to the myth of Horowitz the soulless pyrotechnician. The last years of his life were marked by a new joy and depth in his music-making. This Kreisleriana delves deep into the dark recesses of the soul (DG).

Horowitz in Moscow

The pianist’s emotional return to the Soviet Union in 1986, after an absence of 60 years, was the climax of the latter part of his career. Deutsche Grammophon caught his ecstatically received potpourri of Scarlatti, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Liszt-Schubert, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Moszkowski on the wing. A programme designed to show off Horowitz’s mercurial personality and still formidable technique (DG).

The Last Recording

Just over two weeks before his death, Horowitz returned to Sony’s New York studios to play music he had never recorded before: a delectably witty Haydn Sonata (No 49 in E flat), another selection from Chopin’s Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Etudes and Impromptus, Liszt’s Bach fantasy Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and his own transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan. Miraculously penetrating (Sony).