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Vladimir Horowitz: Horowitz in Moscow

img  Tobias Fischer

A radical individualist by nature, Vladimir Horowitz never made for a particularly good propaganda tool. When he was once asked by an impertinent journalist about whether he considered himself part of the famous Russian School of pianists, he replied – partly tongue-in-cheek, partly dead earnest - that he only knew a single allegiance: The School of Horowitz. And indeed, both in terms of recordings and live performance, which he would repeatedly withdraw from for extended stretches during his career, he remained strikingly idiosyncratic in his choice of repertoire and stubbornly resistant against external influences. Which never prevented the rich and powerful to try and secure his affections nonetheless: When the pianist returned to Moscow in 1986 under the guise of an ambassador of piece and a performer, the invitation was undoubtedly intended as a political statement by the authorities. And yet, for all official efforts to use the events for their intents, local music students, by forcing their way into the conservatory hall, revealed  its real motivations: A celebration of music and a final farewell.

To Horowitz, the performance certainly had nothing political whatsoever about it - it was the most personal act imaginable. On the DVD shot in conjunction with the recording of the album, one can see him reuniting with his niece Elena Dolberg, whom he had last seen as a nine-year-old and performing Scriabin etudes to the composer's daughter. And wherever he's going, although one doesn't actually see it, there seem to be both a smile and a tear on his face all the time. Little wonder: In late 1925, Horowitz  had left the Soviet Union with just enough foreign currency hidden in his shoes to survive and never crossed the border since. For sixty years, he had been a resident of New York, establishing himself as an equally revered and controversial virtuoso. His late return also marked a comeback to the concert stage, which he had abandoned in 1983, most likely due to the side-effects of medication which had caused embarrassing memory lapses in some cases and coordination difficulties in others. It was to be his ultimate visit to Russia. Although Horowitz in Moscow didn't register as his last concert recording, already a mere year later, he would retire for good until his death of a heartattack in 1989.

As if aware of the fleetingness of the occasion, the program selected for Horowitz in Moscow – which on the CD, due to time restraints, omits two lengthy Scarlatti sonatas, a Schubert impromptu and a Chopin polonaise - almost constitutes a fully-fledged portrait in music. Undeniably, it makes for a concise overview of everything that was dear to him: From popular favourites like Moritz Moszkowski's „Étincelles“, which Horowitz loved to perform and to which he composed his own coda, to two pieces by both Rachmaninov as well as Scriabin – composers who had been vital for Horowitz throughout his entire life and who, as formidable pianists in their own right, admired his singular interpretations of their work – and Mozart's piano sonata in C major KV 330, which he had apparently only added to his repertoire in the late 1970s, the program spans as wide an arc in terms of his repertoire as it delineates an astoundingly narrow territory in stylistic terms. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Horowitz fostered only little ambition to record music of the 20th century and remained, as the title of another documentary once aptly postulated, „the last romantic“ in a world increasingly dominated by progress and futurism.

The spell this stubborn insistence on values he held holy exercised on his audience is clearly on display not just in the rapturous applause and emphatic bravos echoing through the conservatory, but also in the customer reviews of major online retailers, where the disc continues to garner highest marks more than two decades after it was recorded and despite its authentic live quality, which submits every crackle, seat shuffling and coughing to tape. And yet, while it remains undisputed that the Moscow performance ranks as easily the most significant concert of his late career, many have retorted that it hardly constitutes his best. There are several instances where Horowitz either adds or omits notes, his still astoundingly flexible fingers too fast for their own good. On others, his thundering bass notes sound so utterly exaggerated, metallic and opaque that they appear as mere mannerism and grandstanding – especially so in concluding encore „Polka de W.R.“, which sees the pianist going through passages of Honky-Tonk-like metrics and almost ear-splitting noise. The flawdness of the album has created a particular reception of the album as a document of authenticity, a work which one buys despite its mistakes, because it has become, in a way, a legend in its own right.

To gauge a live performance by the presence or absence of „mistakes“ is obviously problematic by its very nature. In this case, however, it seems entirely beside the point. It is true that Horowitz in Moscow is working with extreme contrasts in terms of dynamics, timbres and tempi. And yet, with desperately few exceptions, Horowitz never uses these polarities without reason. In his rendition of Scriabin's Etude in D sharp minor, op 8 no. 12, the beast-like roaring of his deep notes, almost Hammond-organ-like in their massive, monolithic sound washes, mirrors the emotional turmoil of the music, counterpointing the sweet and sultry lyricism of the melody with the full harshness of desperation. And by juxtaposing violent outbursts on Liszt's Sonetto 104 del Petrarca with passages of inward reflection and stillness, he creates an almost spatial architecture filled with vivid and sculptural sonic objects. It is in moments like these that one is transported back in time, to a romantic salon, where to dream away from worldly worries during a performance was the greatest compliment to the composer and where a performer could not pay an audience a greater respect to an audience than to pretend as though it weren't there.

One could say that Horowitz is effectively playing entirely for himself here and on this occasion, that is simply the most honest way of approaching this performance. With Horowitz in Moscow you're not buying a legend – you're buying the real thing.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Vladimir Horowitz tribute site
Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon Records

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