“To be a great pianist, one must be part angel and part demon.” ~ Vladimir Horowitz
The great Ukrainian-American pianist Vladimir Horowitz is one of the enigmas of 20th century pianism. His concerts were legendary for their riveting electricity, vast tonal palate, and technical pyrotechnics. A great master with an uncanny ability to play the hall, people would literally line up and down the street to hear him play, at Carnegie Hall and other venues throughout the world. He remains to this day an inspiration to pianists all over the world.
One of the last vestiges of the era of the Great Romantics, Horowitz was nevertheless a conflicted soul who went through extensive periods of self doubt and emotional turbulence. There were many periods throughout his career where he didn’t appear on stage at all, for months and sometimes even years. However, it made his victorious resurgence to the concert stage that much more resplendent.
When comparing the general sound differences between Horowitz and Rubenstein, Harold Schoenburg, a former critic for the New York Times, noted that Rubenstein’s sound was “a genial presence and a bath of warm tone”, whilst Horowitz’s sound was pure electricity.
Horowitz left the Soviet Union as a young man of 27 years, and made a televised Carnegie Hall debut in the United States which set aflame several decades of sold-out concerts, and inspired generations of star struck young pianists.
His concert return to Russia after decades of absence and after the fall of the Berlin wall is one of the greatest concerts ever caught on film.
On everything that he touched, from the smallest character work to the greatest edifice, Horowitz left his mark in the most indelible way. Rachmaninoff, himself considered one of the greatest of the pianists to walk the planet, was left almost at a loss for words when he heard Horowitz perform his third piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic. It is hard to think of a better performance of the B- sonata of Liszt, or of the Scarlatti sonatas in general.
He was very much a showman where pianists like Gould and Richter were very much the conceptual artists. Where they sought for structural perfection, he searched for endless color. He once told a student that he counted over 52 colours in his repertoire of touches.
Horowitz has produced an incredible number of recordings, both in the studio and live. The following is an introduction to some of my favorites.
Scriabin // Étude opus 8/12
Performed live at Carnegie Hall, this is a great introduction for those of you who are new to Horowitz’s playing. Fire, passion, and 100% pure unbridled bravura on display!
Liszt + Horowitz // Mephisto Waltz
Horowitz was also a proficient composer, and carried on the elite Romantic era tradition of embellishing and extending existing compositions. His live recording of the Mephisto waltz is probably the greatest performance of this work! And the coda, which Horowitz wrote, is nothing short of scorching hot!
Rachmaninoff // Piano Concerto No. 3
This is my favourite recording of this piano concerto in general. It is technically, and stamina-wise, probably the most difficult work written involving the piano. It made a lasting impression on Rachmaninoff himself when he heard Horowitz perform it live in New York.
Horowitz in Moscow Recital
This is a must watch for any serious piano student and piano connoisseur. You will need a box of tissues nearby. It is a behind-the-scenes look at Horowitz‘s return to Moscow after a decades-long absence, and is full of incredible emotion between the Russian people and the artist.
Bizet + Horowitz // Carmen Fantasy
If you are looking for the ultimate encore piece then look no further than the Carmen fantasy. This is Horowitz' transcription from from excerpts derived from the opera Carmen. The performance is live from Carnegie Hall, and at the end you will see that even Horowitz himself is quite taken aback at how stupendous his performance was.
Scarlatti // Sonatas
In an age where Glenn Gould was tearing up the scene internationally with Bach, Horowitz turned to another great composer of the Baroque era, Domenico Scarlatti. There’s a wonderful disc of Scarlatti Sonatas which unfortunately is not up on YouTube. Here is a sampling of what this great master could do with such beautiful vignettes.
Chopin // Grand Polonaise and A flat major
Another great warhorse in the romantic era is the Grande Polonaise by Chopin. Performed live at the White House, it is a performance such as this that contributed to the Horowitz legend! One of the truly great recordings of this masterwork.
Rachmaninoff + Horowitz // Piano Sonata No. 2
The Rachmaninoff second piano Sonata is one of the greatest and most difficult piano works of the 20th century. Horowitz wrote his own ending to the Sonata, which again gained the admiration of the composer. It doesn’t get much more Olympian in gesture and conception than Horowitz’s delivery in this live performance.
Tchaikovsky // Concerto in B flat major (with Toscanini)
Probably the greatest recording ever made of one of the most beloved piano concertos of all time, the Tchaikovsky concerto in B-flat major. From the opening chordal blocks of granite, to the most delectable subtleties of the slow movement, Horowitz’s mastery is again on full display. The conductor of this recording is Arturo Toscanini, arguably the greatest conductor of the 20th century, and Horowitz‘s father-in-law as it would turn out.
Liszt // Sonata in B Minor
The B minor Sonata is, in my view, in a three-way tie with the Goldberg variations and the Hammerklavier sonata for the greatest keyboard work ever written. You will simply not find a greater recording than Horowitz’s.