on 6 September 2013
This 41 CD/1 DVD set presents a generous selection of Vladimir Horowitz's appearances at Carnegie Hall from 1943-1978. It includes all Carnegie concerts RCA and Columbia (both now owned by Sony) recorded from 1951-1978. It also contains three complete recitals that were recorded by the Carnegie Hall Recording Company at Horowitz's expense. The pianist donated about 13 of these recitals along with other material to Yale University and they are sometimes referred to as the "Yale concerts." Parts of these concerts have been issued piecemeal since the 1990s and are also compiled here. The 1953 and 1966-1968 recitals are presented unedited for the first time. In a few cases, the set contains back-to-back performances of Horowitz playing the same program. Of course, Horowitz never played works twice in the same way, so the duplication of repertoire will not faze aficionados.
Horowitz's recording career can be divided into five distinct phases; this set covers phases 2-4. Space does not permit a detailed analysis of each performance, so I will give my impressions of each phase:
1943-1953: In this era, technical limitations simply did not exist. But, relaxation is a challenge: the Mozart Sonata from 1951 is wound very tightly; there are places where some of the playing is positively brutal - but these are rare. The two recordings of Tchaikovsky's First Piano concerto make for fascinating comparison: the 1943 War Bonds performance with Toscanini is very straight; the 1953 performance with Szell is phrased more rhapsodically in the opening movement, while the pianist sounds as if he's been shot from a cannon for the finale's octave torrent. There are only two compositions entirely new to the Horowitz discography: Brahms Rhapsody in E-flat, Op. 119, No. 4, and Debussy's The Little Shepherd from the Children's Corner Suite, both from the 1953 25th Anniversary recital. A sense of unease pervades the opening pages of the Brahms, with several wrong notes - I can see why Horowitz declined to release it. As for the rest of the recital, it's more balanced than I remember. Perhaps it's because the concert is now presented unedited, but there's a greater sense of ebb and flow to the Schubert D. 960 Sonata, while the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is as thrilling as ever.
1965-1968: This, for me, is Horowitz's true peak. The technique is largely intact, but the interpretations have a new sense of depth and repose - and there is a wider color palette, although that may be the result of superior recording technology. Further, the pianist has lost nothing in the way of charisma: it's clear he has the audience in the palms of his hands throughout each recital, even when a string snaps on his piano as happened in 1968. Due to the overwhelming demand for tickets, Horowitz repeated the same program several times from the 1960s onward. It's illustrative of Horowitz's spontaneity to compare the pianist's performances of identical works. An extreme example is Chopin's Second Sonata: The November 1966 performance is taut and lean in the opening movements, with a haunting funeral march; while the December performance is stately and measured - more restrained (both wisely eschew the first movement repeat that's heard in the 1949 recital). There are several works which are new to Horowitz's stereo discography: Beethoven's Variations in C minor, Mendelsohn's Song without Words, Op. 67, No. 5, and Poulenc's Toccata.
1975-1978: Here a decline in Horowitz's playing is evident from the get-go. It's clear from the 1975 recitals that the pianist is trying to prove he can still pull off the technical stunts of his youth (and even middle age), which often he can no longer do. While his technique is secure in most of the standard repertoire, from Liszt's By the Source to Chopin's Scherzo in B minor, in certain works - such as Rachmaninoff's Etude Tableau in D and the finale from the Second Sonata - the pianist tries to cover up technical lapses with an overblown, bombastic style. In Schumann's Sonata in F minor (presented twice), Horowitz does not seem to have fully assimilated and internalized the work, and seems to be fighting it rather than playing it - fortunately RCA recorded it again in California several months later as the version issued on LP in 1976 is superb in every respect. That same year, Horowitz made a rare appearance as a chamber performer at the celebration of Carnegie Hall's 85th anniversary. The rendition of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata with Rostropovich is about the most beautiful, loving thing you'll ever hear. What a pity they were never persuaded to record the whole piece. The opening movement of the Tchaikovsky trio has moments of greatness as well as lapses of ensemble - along with some unsteady intonation from Isaac Stern. Horowitz brings far more imagination to the piano part of Schumann's Dichterliebe than one normally hears, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was reportedly displeased with the results. While the recitals are presented unedited, the edit the baritone requested in Ich grolle nicht has been retained. Even more substantially edited is the Golden Jubilee performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto from 1978. This was Horowitz's first time playing with an orchestra since 1953, and while there are many beautiful and heartfelt moments, the performance has some rough spots. There are more technical lapses here - even with editing - than later performances with Zubin Mehta (which was televised on NBC) and in Ann Arbor with Ormandy - a stunning performance where Horowitz nearly equals his younger self.
For many, the real prize here will be the 1968 mini-recital which was televised by CBS. (Can anyone imagine a major network broadcasting a classical piano recital today? It was a demonstration not only of Horowitz's celebrity, but the larger role Classical music played in America's cultural life at the time). Copies of this recital of variable quality have been circulating privately and on the Internet for decades, and small portions have been shown on various documentaries. This is the first time the entire recital has been remastered from something close to the original videotape. I believe the producers have done all they can with the 45 year old standard definition video tape. The image quality is a bit blurred, and there are occasional signs of wear, but overall it's very watchable. The stereo sound, which has been newly synced from Columbia's master tapes, is superb - a vast improvement over what TV audiences would have heard in 1968 (the original mono soundtrack is included as well). For those only familiar with Lang Lang and a host of other performers who agonize throughout their performances, Horowitz's concentration, economy of motion, and straightforward platform manner will come as a shock. This most aurally flamboyant of performers was a portrait of rectitude visually. Astute listeners will notice several minor differences in Horowitz's performance from the companion LP, Horowitz on Television. The pianist played through his entire recital program twice, along with a few selected retakes after the second concert. The network chose which takes to use primarily on the basis of visual quality, while the takes for the album were chosen for musical reasons. Whatever the differences in detail, the performance is consistently some of the tightest, most disciplined playing I've ever heard from Horowitz - how fortunate a visual document of the recital is now available.
Most of the recordings here have been newly remastered. The sound restoration in the 1960s recitals is especially impressive; the listener gets a real sense of hall ambience (along with the occasional subway running underneath the hall). The mono items sound mostly good, although there is one issue with about 30 seconds of heavy surface noise during Liszt's Rákóczy March which stems from the original 78rpm disc. The book includes complete recording information, an essay by producer Jon Samuels about the work that went into remastering the set (reading about the way RCA and Columbia handled Horowitz's recorded legacy will curl your hair), an appreciation by Jed Distler, and a history of Carnegie Hall by Richard Evidon. This last was not particularly interesting to me, as it's obvious Horowitz played so often at Carnegie mostly because it was convenient for him - and judging by the many pirate recordings available, Horowitz tended to be at his best in small college towns like New Haven and Ann Arbor.
I hope Sony will issue the remaining Yale recitals before the source material deteriorates further. A release of selected unissued studio material, which has been circulating privately, would also be in order.