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The people's pianist

The lush romanticism that made Vladimir Horowitz so beloved echoes through events marking the 100th anniversary of his birth.

JOHN BELL YOUNG
Published September 28, 2003

Many years ago, in the luxurious Manhattan townhouse of Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz, a prominent young pianist named Constance Keene asked, after a game of bridge with her hosts, if she could play something for the maestro. Horowitz, his patterned silk bow tie and matching pocket square slightly askew, consented.

Taking her seat at the Steinway grand, she launched into one of Rachmaninoff's most difficult works, his Prelude in E Flat Minor. She waited for the verdict.

"It was wonderful," he said. "But you should speed up at the end."

"But why?" Keene asked, since the score indicated no such thing.

"Ah," whispered Horowitz, grinning sardonically. "Good box office."

Perhaps it was this kind of awareness, so in tune with audiences, that endeared Horowitz to the public and distinguished him from virtually every one of his colleagues. Horowitz, who would have been 100 years old this Wednesday, was more than a musician: He was an event. He enjoyed his celebrity and exploited it. Tall and slim, he had become, by the end of his life, a kind of New York fixture. Sometimes, astounded onlookers would spot him wearing earplugs at trendy nightclubs, as I did once at the notorious Studio 54 back in the 1970s.

Some 15 years after his death from a heart attack in 1989, the Horowitz myth continues. What is it about Horowitz that compels pianists, critics, historians, broadcasters, producers and even music theorists to continue debating his musicianship as well as his legacy?

Clearly, it is his piano playing. This week Sony Classical celebrates his life and art with a series of events, including the re-release of his 1965 and 1966 Carnegie Hall "comeback" recitals, though this time, the recordings are unedited. The wrong notes had been corrected with the pianist's approval, but not publicly disclosed, causing one of the juicier record industry scandals at that time.

In addition, four films about Horowitz, including the Maysles brothers touching documentary, The Last Romantic, as well as a new 10-minute segment of outtakes, will be presented in a special public screening in New York, followed by a panel discussion with his friends, producers and several renowned musicians.

"What ultimately made Horowitz irresistible to the public was his unrivaled technique combined with a completely spontaneous interpretive approach that made each of his concerts an event of utter and unparalleled excitement," explains Sony Classical president Peter Gelb, who was also Horowitz's manager toward the end of his life. "His was a tradition that was rooted in the grand romanticism of piano performance in the early 20th century, when artists felt greater freedom in their interpretations."

Born in Berdichev, Ukraine, on Oct. 1, 1903, as a young man Horowitz wore his hair long and bore an uncanny resemblance to Chopin. Penniless at 24, he abandoned Russia for Germany and electrified Hamburg audiences with his performance of Tchaikovsky's famous B Flat Concerto. He made his debut in the same work in New York in 1928, electrifying the critics and the music world.

Not since Liszt had anyone heard such blistering octaves as they did that evening, or whole strings of notes purring in the ravishing pianissimo that would become his hallmark. Nor had piano music devotees ever been exposed to phrasing so exceptionally deft and liquid that it seemed to transform 88 keys into a chorus of voices and other instruments.

"The most important thing is to transform the piano from a percussive instrument into a singing instrument," Horowitz said. "A singing tone is made up of shadows and colors and contrast. The secret lies mainly in contrasts."

Gelb likens him to "a great and charismatic athlete who goes for broke; he made his unfettered performances feel like a joy ride for the public."

He inspired the kind of devotion today reserved for the biggest rock stars. At every one of his sold-out recitals in New York and elsewhere, thousands of fans would sleep on the street in front of Carnegie Hall to get tickets.

Though hardly a scholar, his philosophy was simple: play from the heart, but let the intellect be the guide. He could ignore the demands of a score or the conventions of period style, and yet play with the warm simplicity of a storyteller at the hearth. He was, in effect, a kind of musical alchemist, able to create an extraordinary range of sounds.

"I have no idea what I am doing, but I know when it is wrong," he told fellow pianist Mordecai Shehori just days before his death. "It is all by intuition."

His playing could be extreme, combining high drama with diabolical abandon. He was, as Wanda was fond of saying, both angel and devil.

A handful of critics and several colleagues loathed his playing, declaring it sometimes indulgent and aesthetically indifferent to the demands of the score.

"Shrinking violets and pedants have always been repelled by aspects of Horowitz's art, but it was impossible for him to give a conventional performance," notes his close friend, pianist David Dubal, author of Evenings with Horowitz (Amadeus Press, $24.95). "He was a great master of the fleeting, imprisoned mood that you would otherwise not even know is there."

Horowitz's stage manner was elegant and unobtrusive. "On stage you are the king and you should try to look like one," he once said.

Never mind his peculiar habits, such as his insistence on performing only on Sundays at 4 p.m.; or his self-imposed 12-year exile from the concert hall following a nervous breakdown in 1953. His objective was never simply to impress an audience, but to disclose whatever he found in the music that he thought capable of enchantment.

Of the hundreds of recordings he made over his long career (he won 25 Grammy awards), perhaps only those he made for RCA Red Seal in the 1950s did justice to the quality of his sound. In contrast to the bright, even edgy sound conveyed by his recordings, in concert his tone was sweet, alluring and seductive.

Though as pianists, each of us eventually develops an individual approach, Horowitz was the first major inspiration for most of us. He opened our ears to the possibilities of our chosen instrument.

What Horowitz brought to music, without ever quite going over the top, was a kind of delicious decadence that placed a premium on pure pleasure. He communicated something of the sensibility of a vanished era.

"His playing was electrifying, spellbinding," says impresario Jacques Leiser. "Horowitz knew how to project sound, and he also commanded hypnotic attention from his audience. From the moment he walked on stage, he had already seized its attention before he touched a note. His playing was always unmistakable. . . . You would know it couldn't be anybody else."

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