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Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz: A Recantation

About a year ago, my son Bernie (now 22 years old) produced a self-described “Oedipal Tirade” titled “Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz,” the three Horowitzes being Bernie, myself, and Vladimir.
Far away at college, liberated from parental guidance, Bernie had acquired a consuming passion for the recordings of Vladimir Horowitz. At Bernie’s age, I, too, succumbed to the thundering octaves and all-purpose intensity. Decades later, looking back, I produced a diatribe of my own: “The Transformations of Vladimir Horowitz,” for The Musical Quarterly (later reprinted in my 1995 essay collection The Post-Classical Predicament. My ripened perspective certified: “Horowitz was less immersed in music than he was aware of himself in relation to his necessary audience. . . . His feats, his abilities, his eagerness to please impelled a complex mating ritual – Horowitz eyeing and ignoring, stroking and rebuffing his public – bypassing music. . . . If he serves as a model , it is of the performer circumscribed and overshadowed by his own celebrity.”
I also wrote: “Horowitz typically excelled in lesser music: brains-in-the-fingers cameos by minor Romantics. . . The lightning swells and diminuendos, the sudden dabs of color, the vanishing-act codas – these and others sleights of hand prove magically self-sufficient. . . . Horowitz sounds happiest, most completely himself, in this type of music. Employing his clairvoyant aural imagination, his prankster’s sense of fun, he empties his full bag of tricks. Depth, decorum, fidelity are unnecessary, even out of place; a superior sort of pandering is the very raison d’etre.”
Naturally, my son became obsessed with his father’s disapproval. In particular, Bernie badgered me furiously for having written that “Horowitz was from the start a merchandiser’s dream. Even his notorious unreliability was turned to his advantage. No film star played such tantalizing games of hide-and-seek. He retired at least three times.” Revisiting my article recently, I discovered that Bernie had taken this passage – with its implication that Horowitz was consciously manipulating his doting admirers — out of context, for I had added: “Had Horowitz’s withdrawals seemed ploys, they would merely have irritated; instead, they seemed necessities. No other musician projected such electrifying insecurity. Horowitz exerted the fascination of a psychological and physical mechanism strung so taut that it had to careen out of control yet did not – usually.”
Mainly, however, Bernie bombarded me with non-commercial recordings of Horowitz in concert – recordings I had never heard. I have endured this onslaught for nearly four years (Bernie is now a senior). In an attempt to extricate myself, I hereby recant and declare that yes, OK, Horowitz was a deeper artist than I had imagined.
Busily excavating five decades of obscure Horowitz recordings, Bernie finally produced a smoking gun: a performance of Liszt’s B minor Ballade from a 1982 Pasadena recital (when Horowitz was 78 years old). Here (42:58 minutes into the program) is a piece I would have thought beyond Horowitz — like the same composer’s B minor Sonata and Dante Sonata, a damnation and redemption narrative demanding a lot more than fingers. Its supreme exponent, Claudio Arrau (listen to the live 1979 recording on Music & Arts CD-1205), testified that in Liszt’s circle the B minor Ballade was known to tell the story of Hero and Leander. The surge and fall of the left-hand chromatic scales represents the Hellespont, which Leander swims to visit his beloved. Each night, the sea is stormier. The fourth night, Hero drowns. A disembodied reprise of Hero’s theme signifies transfiguration. (Cf. my Conversations with Arrau, pp. 143-146.)
Though the spiritual elation of Arrau’s Liszt is absent, Horowitz’ terrifying performance does not skim the striving and rapture of this music. The Ballade’s octaves are saturated with desperation and grief. Rendering the Verklaerung, he (for once) doesn’t toy with the melodic filament; the lovers emerge dignified.
It is a point of some interest that Horowitz does not play broken octaves, as written by Liszt, but alternating octaves – which are easier and louder. Arrau, by comparison, religiously respects the text in this as in all music; the defining nobility of his Liszt performances is at one with this practice. But Liszt’s frequent spirit of improvisation is lost on Arrau.
The B minor Ballade, I would say, doubtless arose from an act of improvisation, and is in fact fundamentally un-notatable. The letter of the score potentially becomes a mere point of departure. The performer is challenged to produce something that, if not a picture of what Liszt actually sounded like (a picture unrecapturable), is at least a demonic excursion comparable in intensity, scale, and power of suggestion. I have no problem with Horowitz’s substitution of alternating octaves.
When I remember Arrau performing the Liszt Sonata in the final years of his career, I remember witnessing the real life drama of music as an elixir – of an aged body inhabited by the urgent and unsettling passions of a young man; veritably, Liszt turned Arrau into Faust. Horowitz is no Faust. But the B minor Ballade absorbs and amplifies his nervous tension with transformative results: this is a Horowitz performance that is not about the piano.
Where to find comparable Liszt playing today? My favorite present-day Liszt interpreter is little-known: Mykola Suk, whose capacity to inhabit the Dante and B minor Sonatas is a rare feat of courage and humility. You can hear these performances on the new Music & Arts CD-1234. And you can hear Suk playing both works at Georgetown University in D.C. this coming February as part of a two-day Post-Classical Ensemble “Interpreting Liszt” festival – at which the role of improvisation in Liszt performance will be tackled head-on. (The link in the previous sentence includes a Suk concert recording of the Liszt Sonata.)
(For the Horowitz Pasadena recital file, my thanks to Dr. John L. Duffy:; 3211 Nolen Avenue, P.O. Box 261, Walker, Iowa 52352-0261.)


  1. Gary Chapman says:

    I have always believed that Horowitz sounds more like Lang Lang than any of the Russian pianist’s adherents would like to admit…In that part of Liszt piano music that requires impulsive virtuoso gypsy fiddling, they are both ideal proponents, eccentricities and all. Although they are from completely different eras and backgrounds, they both strike me as arriving at the same place. In late Liszt, a bad thing, in most Liszt, a good thing. Gulp!
    Things like the Concord Sonata or the Debussy Etudes would appear to be safe from harm.

  2. I had a similar semi-conversion to Horowitz, having always been far more receptive to Arrau’s conceptions, who is the Russian’s antipode and is to Horowitz what Furtwangler is to Toscanini (not for nothing is Arrau sometimes referred to as the Furtwangler of the keyboard, and not coincidentally these latter are my favorite pianist and conductor, respectively, towering by miles and miles above all others). Nevertheless, the older I get, seemingly paradoxically, the more open I am to different interpretations and styles of performance. Of course, I still have my favorites, but I try to find whatever felicities there are to be found in any musician’s interpretations (yes, even those of a HIP bent, though most of the time PPP induces nausea and revulsion). As for Horowitz, specifically, he could do a few things very well. For me, he was especially adept at milking the “achingly beautiful” inflection in pieces like “Kinderszenen”, a few Scarlatti sonatas, and a few of the Schubert impromptus. I find him at his best when he is most sensitive, quiet, delicate. Maybe, I dare say, sentimental. But it is impossible at times to resist Horowitz’s sentimentality. He just wins you over, and resistance is futile. I do not care at all for his banging, though, except perhaps in some of the more exuberant Scarlatti pieces. My ears are so spoiled by Arrau’s sound that almost everyone else sounds metallic and brutal in any dynamic above ff. And yet, Horowitz’s playing could be unbearably touching when he was on. Exhibit A: the most gorgeous performance of any Scarlatti I’ve ever heard…

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