Vladimir Horowitz – a shy pianist…

When reading Piatigorsky’s memoirs I happened to come across a piece of information about Horowitz that really surprised me. Piatigorsky recalled that that the young Volodia (with whom the cellist had made friends before the war and played a lot of concerts – mainly in trio together with Nathan Milstein) was an exceptionally shy and silent person. He was a young man with whom it took a long time to make friends, introverted and very ambitious. Whenever he sat at the piano in situations other than an official concert performance, he always played a piece from the beginning to the end, never showing off or choosing spectacular fragments… His personality made everyone tremble even before Horowitz touched the piano keys, everybody felt that something extraordinary was going to happen whenever he approached the instrument.

What a different picture of Horowitz as a man in comparison with what we know from the last years of his life, when he became a jovial “uncle” always ready to smile, prone to childlike pranks and charming tomfoolery. What an extraordinary metamorphosis!

What I find fascinating about Horowitz is the fact that his artistic personality kept developing until his very last days. There are certain types of performers or creators whose artistic expression intensifies with time, not yielding to the “natural” course of events. Passage of time usually strengthens people’s inclination for synthesis, Apollonian equilibrium or, at the very end of life, for “eschatological” reflection. Speaking more crudely, the senses of a mature person become less acute, which, combined with experience and wisdom that come with age, often produces aesthetically interesting effects. Or perhaps it is only our gratitude to great performers for what they have given us throughout their lives that makes us experience it that way… There is inherent beauty in this situation.

In Horowitz, on the other hand, we observe an intensification of the features of his very strong artistic personality at the end of his long career marked with periods of silence. I have always been fascinated by a unique poetic quality of his art, and by his extraordinary, intuitive musical wisdom that escapes analysis. In this strongly individualistic musical intuition lies the source of the opinion, expressed by some, that Horowitz does not deserve to be put on the highest pedestal. I do not agree. Horowitz exerted on me – and probably on many other musicians – a huge, a formative influence. Let me try to explain why.

“A shy pianist” – this misleading introductory description of Horowitz the man bears no relation to his art, which escapes all criteria. Horowitz possessed rare artistic “moral courage”, great strength, which enabled him to subordinate all he did to musical expression. He had an electrifying technique, very unique skills that were always at the service of his musical artistry. When playing, he was taking risks, never afraid of slight imperfections – he was not an absolute perfectionist. He believed that striving to achieve perfect “purity” of playing had to be at the cost of expression. He played a mechanically very light piano tuned to his requirements, presented to him before the war by Steinway. The piano had a rare dynamic scale, which Horowitz used to the maximum. Under his fingers the instrument displayed a whole array of tone colours.

In his art, Horowitz remained in the world of poetry. Often that poetry was characterised by high temperature of emotional states. Its intensity was created “here and now”. His playing always contained a dose of improvisation, a feature that I value immensely in performers (and not only in them).

Its essence is specificity of perception of the musical tissue and a certain kind of unexpectedness. A great value is created when a performer is able to leave himself a margin for improvisation and has the technical skills necessary to carry it out … Such a situation is the most thrilling for me.

Horowitz’s repertoire was substantial, although not as vast as Richter’s. He kept returning to the same pieces – “talismans” – throughout his career. Thus, he defied the label that some superficial critics gave him – that of a virtuoso and a “technically-minded” artist. He kept returning to his favourite Scarlatti [Sonata in E major], Schumann [Kinderszenen] and Chopin [Ballade in G minor]. He is reported to have said once that he would like to play a recital consisting of several performances of the Ballade… This says a lot. His artistic personality is very capricious and complex. It is unpredictable. The phrase meanders and surprises us with subtle shadings building an intimate and literally unique climate, very difficult to grasp intellectually and virtually impossible to copy. So subtle and numerous are the nuances, making the timbre of His voice so easily recognisable. This vanishing feature – recognisability of the phrasing style and tone – seems to be a great value. Pianists today (as Horowitz repeatedly pointed out in interviews) play more and more alike. And they are not alone. This is a feature of our times, the era of uniformity and globalisation, and a subject for a separate analysis …

Horowitz is instantly recognisable after barely a few notes. Apart from unique phrasing and tremendous sensitivity to the importance of harmony, we are also struck by the space between sound planes and the subordination of the expression to one of them – most often an exceptionally ear-catching melody and its diversity. There is always an impression that music is created “casually”. This illusion is caused by a lack of any effort, also physical effort, in handling the instrument. I think that what worries Horowitz’s critics most of all is their inability to find an intellectual foundation of his art. Horowitz escapes rational justifications, which many people find necessary for full reception of art. People encounter similar problems in confrontation with strongly individualistic poetic phenomena. Horowitz is always extremely “characteristic” in each note he plays and thus challenges our expectations.

The pianist became a living legend, experiencing frenetic applause of his audiences and very emotional reactions to his art. I admire him even more, trying to empathize with his emotions, when he returned to the stage at Carnegie Hall, after twelve years of “silence”.

He began his return to the concert stage with Bach… Yet he reached the absolute heights when he was playing the music of composers whose personality was somehow akin to his own. We need to mention here names like Scriabin, who must have been close to him, as well as Schumann, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Surprisingly, Horowitz played a lot of Clementi and many small pieces that are now far outside the mainstream of the piano repertoire. Interestingly, he rarely played with an orchestra and performed only a few piano concertos (among them was a brilliant performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto in D minor). After 1965 his art became even more refined and expressive. He played a lot of the composers mentioned above, some late Beethoven, some Liszt and Schubert, a lot of Mozart. Being familiar with many live concert recordings of Horowitz, thanks to the possibility of listening (and re-listening many times after recording them) to the programmes of the late and much lamented Jan Weber, who presented various such “treasures” on the Polish Radio, I think that Horowitz definitely needed the atmosphere of a live concert, of “singularity” and that special concentration which appears on such occasions. His studio recordings fail to do justice to his greatness, some of them may even falsify or diminish it. It is also a pity that Horowitz played so little chamber music and recorded even less of it. What has survived in the form of recordings attests to something truly extraordinary.

I personally deeply regret that I did not have a chance to attend a concert of Vladimir Horowitz. His charisma, as reported by eye-witnesses, was unique in the world of musical performers. People did not mind travelling enormous distances just to attend his infrequent concerts in the 1970s and 1980s, and often cried with emotion after listening to him for a few minutes. And he, always immaculately elegant, wearing a bow tie (one of thousands that he was said to own – he was once voted the “bow tie wearer of the year”), full of warmth and childlike naivety, apparently unaware of what he was offering his listeners and what “magic” he was able to work on the piano, always remained in contrast to the tension of his musical poetry and often psychedelic expression. Perhaps that was a consciously staged contrast … He must have been aware of the “realms” in which he moved.

Uniqueness – this is the word that comes to my mind at the conclusion of this reflection. Never are we going to hear such a pianist again. I even think that this format of artistic personality has disappeared already or is now disappearing from this world for ever…