When he stepped on the stage of the Berlin Philharmonie in May, 1986, Horowitz was 82 years old, and yet the audience expected him to deliver the same magic as he had since just after World War I. For those of us who are not experts in Horowitz, it's easy to think of him as a a brand name (as we do his father-in-law, Toscanini), a one-size-fits-all performer. His trademark was dazzlement dosed with quirks and eccentriciities that used to be common currency in the golden age of touring virtuosos modeled after Liszt. On both counts the aged Horowitz was still reliable, although at reduced energy, reduced for hi, that is. This version of Kreisleriana starts off cautiously, with nervous fingers, and then holds together at a level of quiet charisma, to coin a phrase.
For me, nothing on CD 1 sent a chill down the spine until the second half of the Schubert-Liszt waltz, where I was suddenly drawn in, not by Horowitz's power - he was always one to dominate an audience by force - but by the whimsy and ease of light, fast passagework; he always kept his ability to make the percussiveness of the piano turn to liquid in his hands. Also, since I get restless whenever Horowitz indulges in too much abrupt contrast - his trick of adding an electric shock to familiar music - the more settled quality of the aging Horowitz is appealing. Once he switched to Sony, the pianist was often given harsh, glaring sound, so I'm happy to second the earlier reviewers who note that this time around everything sounds quite beautiful, with no hint of digital edge.
All the composers on the program were those he had interpreted for decades, but here interpretation means that they got the full Horowitz treatment. This poses a problem, because we live in an age of sober integrity from performers rather than anything-goes magnetism. On the current scene only Mikhail Pletnev has the nerve to ring outrageous changes on Beethoven, for example, the way Horowitz regularly did. Listening to CD 2, I detect a happy balance between the first Horowitz and the second, although for a long time critics lamented that after his "historic return," he was no longer the high-wire artist he once was, unwilling or unable to inject nervous frissons into every moment on stage. The second Horowitz is diminished, I would say, for his own good. Those regular breakdowns and retreats from the public eye were the price being paid by the greatest risk-taker and nerve-wracker of all.
He developed a "Horowitz at home" intimacy that can be felt here, particularly in the second half, which is filled largely with short pieces, each given its own spicy or mellow character. I miss the fantasy he once infused into the Petrarch Sonnet no. 104 of Liszt, yet this low-key rendition is so personal and reflective that it brings tears. The musicality of very old musicians often reaches us through the haze of time and the glow of wisdom, the two inextricably entangled. When a showstopper comes in the form of the "Heroic" Polonaise, I almost resented that the spell was broken, but even here Horowitz is unusually gentle, as if letting us down easily.
In the end, this isn't a disc for newcomers who want to know why Horowitz was the one and only. That Horowitz should be sought from historical recordings before 1950, since he crops up only intermittently in his second phase. but as a perfect example of the second phase, this Berlin concert is all but unmatched, in my experience.