Horowitz at the Met

Horowitz, Vladimir

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Piano Perfection Happened Here

Every music collection needs examples of unassailable mastery, recordings that capture technical perfection. This is one. The pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903–1989) was perhaps the most technically accomplished of all the great pianists of the mid-twentieth century, a fastidious musician who made clarity his calling. Even when delivering great thundering outbursts—check out the climactic moments of Franz Liszt's Ballade No. 2 on this 1981 solo recording—his groupings of notes and clusters are distinct. If such moments in the pianistic repertoire are hailstorms, Horowitz makes sure we can pick out the part each pebble plays.

Born in Kiev, Horowitz debuted in 1922 and first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928; of that occasion, the reviewer for The New York Times wrote, "It has been years since a pianist created such a furor with an audience in this city." After his 1965 "comeback" performance at Carnegie Hall, Horowitz got more finicky about his music making. He would perform recitals only at 4 P.M. on Sundays. He demanded his own piano, which according to legend had heavily lacquered hammers and supersensitive keys; to accommodate him, the instrument was lifted by crane out of the second story of his Manhattan townhouse.

This recording, on that piano, is enthralling. It begins with Domenico Scarlatti's Six Sonatas, a series of melodic inventions Horowitz interprets gingerly, embellishing little. The Liszt, which is as dense as Wagner in spots, finds Horowitz maintaining several pulses at once, and shows that he could summon brute force when needed. Chopin's Ballade No. 4 is its inverse—rather than sounding all the notes of a chord simultaneously, Horowitz fans them out, in brisk, metrically perfect arpeggiations that expand the shape of Chopin's lines. Like so much great Horowitz, the enhancements are rarely intended as showstoppers—they're just unassuming inventions, made dazzling by his calm, low-key delivery.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1981, RCA
Key Tracks: Liszt: Ballade No. 2. Rachmaninoff: Prelude, Op. 23, No. 5.
Catalog Choice: Horowitz in Moscow; Favorite Chopin.
Next Stop: Chopin: Twenty-four Preludes, Arthur Rubinstein
After That: J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, Sviatoslav Richter.
Book Pages: 368–369

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