Vladimir Horowitz: virtuoso who possessed the dark side of genius

December 19, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Music Critic There are three kinds of pianists: those who love and admire Vladimir Horowitz, those who envy, hate and even loathe him, and those who regard the pianist with a mix of all these emotions.

Part of the reason has to be that audiences adored Horowitz. With the possible exception of Franz Liszt and Ignace Paderewski, Horowitz's was the greatest career in the history of the keyboard.

All three men were controversial. But Liszt ended his career as a pianist when he was 36 and died before the advent of records. The records of Paderewski, who died early in World War II, were made long past his prime. Horowitz's career, however, was thoroughly documented by the recording process. He made his first discs in 1928, when electronic recordings had become sophisticated enough to realistically capture a musician's sound. completed his final record a few days before his death in 1989, when digital recording was entering its second decade.

An index of the pianist's continuing popularity is that every work he recorded commercially is still available. Except for violinist Jascha Heifetz, this can't be said about any other instrumentalist.

A few years ago, EMI brought out a three-CD boxed set (around $33 in stores) of Horowitz performances, mostly from the early 1930s. Two months ago, SONY Classical released a 13-CD set (priced at approximately $140) of the performances the pianist recorded for it between 1962 and 1973. And RCA Victor Red Seal -- which recorded Horowitz from the time of his American debut in 1928 until he jumped to Columbia (now SONY) in 1962, and to which he returned in 1976 -- is about to issue a 22-CD set (priced at about $215) called "The Vladimir Horowitz Edition."

It will be only a matter of time before Deutsche Grammophon, for which the pianist made seven CDs between his departure from RCA in the early '80s and his return to SONY for his final record, issues its own box.

Listening to these records makes it easy to understand why Horowitz was -- despite "retirements" from the stage between 1936 and 1939, 1953 and 1965, 1971 and 1974, and 1983 and 1985 -- the world's most popular pianist for more than 60 years. Also, why his playing remains controversial.

No other modern pianist was so given to distorting a musical text -- whether exaggerating rhythm, melody and dynamics -- or even, in cases such as his edition of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," discarding it. Horowitz's defenders characteristically respond that the pianist was "the last romantic" -- the last in a line of composer-pianists who did not regard a composer's text as unalterable sacred writ.

But this doesn't wash. The so-called "romantic" pianists, trained before the end of the 19th century, may have occasionally ignored a composer's dynamic markings, touched up a score to make it pianistically more "effective," and teased rhythms to emphasize inner voices. But none called attention to their own interpretive art so boldly as Horowitz. And none played with so peculiar a sonority. Horowitz had his instrument doctored so that an unbelievably fast action made it possible for him to startle audiences with the sudden juxtapositions of explosive fortes with whispering pianissimos. And his instrument was voiced so that its range of color varied from a piccolo-like quality at the top to something like a kettledrum at the bottom.

But if his playing had a knife-edged definition unobtainable on other pianos, nobody could have played his instrument the way he did. His genius lived in his mind, not in his fingers. The way he could exaggerate a melody and its accompaniment in the bass sometimes gave his performances a multidimensional quality that made it difficult to believe they were coming from a single source.

When Horowitz played the famous left-hand octaves in Liszt's "Funerailles," he made the piano roar so threateningly that listeners could be persuaded there was more inside the instrument than an inanimate steel frame, springs and felt-covered wooden hammers. He could make the piano sound -- as in either his 1934 EMI recording of "Funerailles" or the 1948 RCA -- as if it contained an orchestra of demons. If one could liken pianists to film directors, the moody Sviatoslav Richter might be the keyboard's Ingmar Bergman, the joyous Arthur Rubinstein would be its Frank Capra, and the dazzling Horowitz would be its Steven Spielberg.

Horowitz was not so much a romantic as a necromancer, a sorcerer whose performances were often more about his magic than the music played. Musicians exist on a scale that begins with those who demand active engagement by the listener and ends with those whose personal projection is so huge that only passive listening is required. On that scale, Horowitz occupied the last position.

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