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What Happened Between Vladimir Horowitz and George Szell?

George Szell

“As admirers of Horowitz’s musicianship and resilience, we must face these realities remembering that, in the end, he loaded his baggage onto his back and jogged across the finish line, smiling from ear to ear. Today, the weight of Horowitz’s baggage serves mainly to accentuate the magnitude of his ultimate triumph.”

Thus Bernard Horowitz on Vladimir Horowitz. These two are unrelated. Bernard, however, happens to be my son Bernie – whose obsession with Vladimir has been the topic of numerous filings in this space.

It has been many years since Bernie began plying me with rare Horowitz recordings in an attempt to bludgeon me toward a more favorable opinion. As I have conceded, he’s met with some success.

The most recent Sony Classical Horowitz release – “The Great Comeback: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall” – comprises 15 CDs and an elegantly illustrated 200-page booklet. In a formidable review the other day in Spain’s El Pais, Pablo Rodriguez cited Bernie’s Sony essay at length. Truly, as Rodriguez writes, it more clarifies Horowitz’s epic 12-year retirement (1953-65) than anything previously written. The details are remarkable.

For one thing, there was an incident with George Szell, whom Horowitz (Bernie writes)  resented for his “ingratitude and nastiness towards artists – including Toscanini and Rubinstein – who had helped him financially and professionally after he escaped Nazi Germany.” When Dmitri Mitropoulos suffered a heart attack, Szell was (inexplicably) chosen by the New York Philharmonic to partner Horowitz in Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Piano Concerto (which Szell loathed) for the Horowitz Silver Jubilee on January 12, 1953. The broadcast recording of that performance documents a singular feat of symphonic accompaniment: to my ears, a conductor caustically intent on driving every bit as fast as his hurtling soloist.

Afterward there was a party at Horowitz’s apartment. As Bernie writes (quoting a private tape of Horowitz in bitter reminiscence): “Szell and his wife . . . walked into the Horowitz’s living and room and beheld Horowitz’s favorite painting: ‘The Acrobat in Repose’ by Pablo Picasso. Mr. and Mrs. Szell exclaimed, ‘Aha! You see what painting they have here? You see what painting they have here?! It’s just like the pianist!’”

This vituperative outburst coincided with self-doubts Bernie also documents: opting for Prokofiev, Barber, Kabalevsky and other moderns, Horowitz had shifted his attention away from Classical and Romantic repertoire; he had opted for a more brilliant instrument; he was experiencing qualms about “the trajectory of his career.” He retired from the stage six weeks later.

Some four years after that, Horowitz’s daughter Sonia attempted suicide on a motor scooter in Italy. Horowitz’s apparently callous response has never made any sense. But Bernie connects this to the tragedy of his brother, Jacob, a hospitalized World War I veteran whom Vladimir had visited daily before Jacob hung himself. Bernie has additionally uncovered poignant documents showing that Horowitz, “an absentee father during Sonia’s adolescence,” bonded with his daughter in New York shortly before she departed for Italy and her near-fatal accident.

These revelations in Bernie’s Sony essay hint at a larger portrait he has unearthed of a young artist unmoored by the Russian Revolution (which decimated his family), then coping for decades with demons of every description – and yet ultimately renewed upon returning to Russia, and to his personal and artistic roots, at the age of 82.


  1. romuald sztern says

    What can one say? So much suffering beneath that almost. childish elegant demeanor. An immensely ri h artist and pianist ! He has given me so much. His Busoni transcrption ,Chopin mazurkas , Kreisleriana, Humoreske Russian music….. one could go on and on . A sensitivity …..

  2. Dr. Jos. A DiLuzio says

    Once again, I have come not to bury Mr. Horowitz but rather to praise him.

    Or should I say both Horowitzes?!

    The uniqueness, nay rather, the utter singularity of Vladimir is so well known and so amply documented

    both on CD and DVD (as père Horowitz and fils Bernie point out), that it’s wholly unnecessary to pile on

    à la American football.

    But SZELL ! That’s another matter entirely. Notwithstanding his unassailable innate talent both as pianist and
    musician, I find him the ugliest of conductors. Interpretations almost invariably overdriven, fast, devoid of warmth,

    color, or “bass” (all treble this Kapellmeister). And here in addition we have more evidence of his inhumanity

    to fellow musicians and colleagues. And what does the dilettantish comment about Picasso’s painting

    really betoken? Other than an ad hominem slam against a pianist he was no doubt envious of?! We should all

    read or reread Anshel Brusilow’s great book “Shoot the Conductor” which intimately describes the cruelty and

    egomaniacal nature of Szell’s musicianship and character as a human being. It’s ultimately why the great

    concertmaster left Cleveland and came here to Philadelphia where he enjoyed a warmer, more congenial

    rapport with a greater conductor, Eugene Ormandy.

    • Willemstad Philips says

      Ormandy a greater conductor than Szell? Surely you jest.

    • Arthur R. Solomon says

      Dear Dr. Deluzio,
      Maybe I can share . . .
      A couple of years ago, I heard (radio) a playing of a Mozart piano concerto. I quite taken-in by the poor piano playing. Then amazed that the performance was actually recorded and broadcast (Serkin and Abbado 1983). So I purchased the CD. Summary of my reaction: Rhythm.

      I grew up in Chicago (i am 76), to feel that classical music IS Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
      I left Chicago for college (Univ of Mich) with ardent love of many recordings. First in my mind were Concerto for Orchestra and Mahler 4.

      Only after decades did I learn that Reiner was one of the best 20th century conductors. But I did learn some unpleasants about my hero Hungarian.

      I recommend “A Windfall of Musicians” by D.L. Crawford

      Arthur Solomon, PhD Math eons ago, now a 1/2 time massage therapist for a chiropractor.

      • Joseph A. DiLuzio says

        Dear Dr. Solomon,

        Thanks many times over for your warm reply.

        My reference to Reiner and his antics (which were legion) in no way prejudices me against

        the magnificence of his recordings; nor what he did to make the CSO one of the tightest and most

        virtuosic of orchestras. And I will check out D.L. Crawfords “A Windfall of Musicians.”

        From a Philadelphian to a great Chicagoan. Ciao, Joe DiLuzio

  3. Two things at work here, regardless of backgrounds. Personalities and authoritarian conductors.

    The latter has disappeared for the most part, but the former will be with us forever.

    Short of being a clinical sociopath, no big deal.

  4. Tully Potter says

    Horowitz was always very fragile. He first retired from the concert hall as early as the 1930s and was helped back into the public arena by his friends Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin.On 26 September 1938 at Zurich, Busch made space in a Busch Quartet concert for Horowitz, who had not given a concert for two years, to play the Schumann Fantasy (in the event he substituted a Chopin group at the last minute, another sign that he was still not robust mentally). The concert went well and he was all right until the early 1950s.

  5. Tully Potter says

    I should add that Szell was often very arrogant and patronising to Serkin, treating him like a junior (they had studied with the same teacher Richard Robert, as had Clara Haskil and Hans Gál). Serkin got his own back on one occasion by gluing Szell to a lavatory seat. Szell was heard calling plaintively to his wife ‘Helena…’

  6. Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D. says

    Thanks, Tully Potter for the anecdote where Serkin avenges himself by gluing Szell to the privy pot.

    As with Reiner, these stories abound. A violist friend of mine told me many. Once, when he was principal

    in Minneapolis, the rehearsal was going, well, in the Szellian manner. Lots of starts and stops (you

    know like the one where Toscanini came running to the rescue of the NBC after the Hungarian kept

    interrupting the orch — one musician counted 42 times or thereabouts). At one point, Szell, interrupted

    for the nth time and intoned: “YOU KNOW I CAN BE VERY VERY NASTY.” To which a back desk replied:

    “We know; you don’t have to tell us.”

    In a more serious vein, we should thank Mr. Potter for the more musical significance of the Serkin saga.

    “Patronising to Serkin, huh, well, having heard him even when aged, I was enthralled when

    he and Ormandy ended a gala concert with an autumnally beautiful interpretation of the Beethoven 4th.

    It’s precisely that type of humanity both musically and personally so egregiously missing in George Szell.

  7. Dr. Jos A. DiLuzio says

    Rereading this wonderful piece on Horowitz and Szell, I realized that in my replies I hadn’t given enough

    credit to Bernard H. What must have eluded me the first time, specifically, was Vladimir’s “shifting his attention

    away . . .and opting for Prokofiev, Barber, Kabalevsky and other Moderns.” Added to which is the fine

    conclusion to the post where Horowitz’s personal and professional odyssey can be seen against the backdrop

    of his own personal vicissitudes and the devastation caused by the Russian Revolution.

    Kudos then to both Joe and Bernie! Looking forward to much more from same.

  8. Jeffrey Hockett says

    What a fine article from the Horowitzes. I always enjoy the anecdotes of Conductors. Szell’s memories have not been kindly remembered after his death…..the recording quality of his Many Cleveland Recordings (later CBS, still later Sony) always seemed less brilliant than the ones recorded for the above by Bernstein and Ormandy. With remastering…yes, Szell’s have fine moments, technical brilliance….indeed lacking in Bass……and PASSION. His one or two recordings of Debussy and Ravel or downright laughable. This is probably why Boulez was brought in to Guest Conduct and record this kind of repertoire with Cleveland (still, pretty damn dry), but in turn Szell was supposed to conduct certain repertoire with the New York Philharmonic helping out Boulez. Buuuuuut Szell died. Leaving Boulez in then, uncharted territory it would seem. Szell was every bit the ass that Reiner was just perhaps a bit more dry in how he managed. Reiner’s recordings though…..also technically BEYOND brilliant…still leaves a bit of passion to be desired but was caught in so much better recorded sound by RCA that they are STILL important in a collection. Horowitz indeed partnered up with the gentlemanly Ormandy right up until the latter’s death in 1985….with fine recordings left behind. I could always see Reiner helping push someone over the edge (not so much guest artists as his players) but this Szell anecdote smacks of Szell’s envy. It seems like more and more Szell anecdotes are coming out over the last 15 years. I was raised on stories about Toscanini and Reiner but these Szell stories are at once both entertaining and sad. The idea that Toscanini came to rescue the NBC Symphony from SZELL?? They quite obviously preferrred Toscanini’s screaming…but stopping less!

  9. Joe DiLuzio says

    No, I surely DON’T jest. Ormandy was a greater, more colorful (in every sense), more communicative

    conductor than that cold, robotic Szell. I believe it was Klemperer who called him a

    “typewriter but a very good typewriter.”

    And as I’ve invited so many music critics out there to do, listen BLIND, without prejudice

    and see if you can tell who’s conducting what, and what orchestra. Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D.

  10. Joseph A. DiLuzio says

    Let me thank Jeff Hockett for his amplifying my reply concerning Szell. I particularly appreciate his

    comments about lack of PASSION in Szell (his caps, not mine) and his “indeed lacking in Bass…”

    It was in that spirit that I drew the comparison between the Hungarian conductor and his

    near contemporary-compatriot Eugene Ormandy. The latter’s strength, nay rather, true Fach were

    the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth: Strauss, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich

    (as well as Romantic predecessors such as Tchaikovski, Brahms and even Bruckner).

    It is indeed the lack of passion, bass (in the vertical-harmonic component of the music) and idiomatic

    quality so missing in Szell that forces me into this A-B comparison.

  11. Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio says

    This’ll be my last, a necessary short addendum to the good replies from other subscribers.

    George Szell, as indicated in the original article, DETESED, the Tchaikovsky concerto.

    Prescinding from the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of his having accompanied Horowitz in same,

    it should remind us of what he was so arrogant to opine:

    “There are no such things as UNDISCOVERED MASTERPIECES.”

    Really, Maestro. Some of us know better. Joe DiLuzio

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