The Singular Horowitz Remembered, Warts and All

The other day, Schuyler Chapin reminisced about the afternoon of May 9, 1965, when he was standing backstage at Carnegie Hall with Vladimir Horowitz. It was a “stinking hot Sunday,” and the legendary pianist was playing his first recital after a 12-year absence from the public (a disappearance that remains unexplained to this day). Horowitz arrived only minutes before the starting time of 3:30, keeping everyone on tenterhooks about whether he would actually show up. After a quick warm-up on a piano in the dressing room-and a further warming of his hands between those of a young Carnegie Hall employee who happened to be standing nearby (“Mine were too cold,” Chapin said)-Horowitz finally made it to the door of the auditorium, where nearly 3,000 people waited.

“He stood there facing me,” recalled Mr. Chapin, who had been the pianist’s A&R man at Columbia Records and had agreed to serve as his backstage valet. “I took him by the shoulders, turned him 180 degrees and literally pushed him out onto the stage. After he played the first piece [Busoni's transcription of Bach's Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major], his wife Wanda joined me, her eyes filled with tears, mascara running. ‘I never thought I’d live to see this day,’ she said.”

I was one of the 3,000 waiting in the hall, and I leapt to my feet, roaring along with everyone else, when that slim, dapper figure in gray trousers and swallowtail coat materialized onstage. Wearing the smile of an impish kid, he bowed to every corner of the house. I felt my heart stop when, at the very opening of the Toccata, he struck a crashingly wrong note, only to keep going with an implacability that made the blood race. I shared in the general relief when he wrapped up the Toccata with steely gravity-“He still had it!”-and swept with magisterial verve into Schumann’s C major Fantasy. Then, in the coda of the second movement, things went haywire. This time the missed notes suggested a wrong turn from which there might be no way back. But on he went, blurring his recovery with the pedal. After pausing to wipe his face with a handkerchief, he traversed the last, slow movement with transcendent serenity. From there, through pieces by Scriabin, Chopin, Debussy and Moszkowski, we were on the old Horowitz roller-coaster.

That concert sparked one of the most remarkable comebacks in the annals of classical music-a sporadic, unpredictable run that made the pianist’s every appearance a news event and culminated in his return, in 1986, to his native Russia, which he’d fled more than 60 years before. Heavily documented on video and CD, those triumphant years lasted until Horowitz’s death in 1989 at 86. They were also valedictory years, during which the pianist was forever being labeled the last Romantic virtuoso. As a younger generation of cooler-headed, more intellectual pianists came to the fore-among them, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, Krystian Zimerman, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida-Horowitz came to be regarded as a lovable dinosaur.

The truth, as demonstrated by an outpouring of Horowitz films and CD’s re-released in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, is that he was that rare artist who sums up nothing but himself. The most revealing of these documents is Sony Classical’s album Horowitz Live and Unedited , which is not a remastering of Columbia’s best-selling record of the 1965 concert, but restitution for what in its day was something of a fraud. Those of us who actually heard the concert realized, when the purportedly “live” recording came out, that the colossal boo-boos had mysteriously disappeared. Horowitz, with the connivance of Columbia’s engineers, had cleaned them up. Now, in a nod to truth in advertising uncharacteristic of the music business, Sony has gone back to the original tapes and reinstated the boo-boos. The old sorcerer, warts and all, has never sounded more excitingly himself.

Whatastonishesmostabout Horowitz Live and Unedited is not the fabled technical virtuosity that struck fear and trembling into so many other pianists, but the immense range of expressiveness, such that each note seems to have its own specific hue, each phrase its own emotional weight. (It seems impossible that the almost deranged thunderer of Chopin’s G minor Ballade could also be the fleet-footed Puck of Moszkowski’s Étude No. 11 in A flat major.) Moreover, the extravagant indulgence of that Matisse-like palette and that Picasso-like nervous system, which inspired Virgil Thomson to call Horowitz “a master of distortion and exaggeration,” had one uncomplicated aim: to excite the audience’s love of music by taking an unfettered delight in playing it. Could it be that Horowitz was not an old-fashioned Romantic at all, but the piano’s great Modernist?

Pianists determined not to show anything like a human personality in their playing (these are the people who agree a priori with Michael Steinberg’s wildly unfair verdict of Horowitz as an artist who “illustrates that an astounding instrumental gift carried no guarantee about musical understanding”) should hie themselves to the Walter Reade Theater, where the Film Society of Lincoln Center is showing (from Oct. 1 to Oct. 3) Horowitz Plays 100 . Produced by the pianist’s manager, Peter Gelb, during and after the last five years of Horowitz’s life, this series of four documentaries takes us into the elegant living room of the pianist’s townhouse on Carnegie Hill, off Fifth Avenue, to a studio in Milan where the pianist is recording Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major with the conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, and into the Great Hall at the Moscow Conservatory.

The man we see is more than a great showman. He is a deadly serious artist with an all-encompassing focus at the keyboard that recalls the resolute image of his idol, Sergei Rachmaninoff. It’s mesmerizing to watch close up Horowitz’s preternaturally long fingers, with their oddly turned-up tips, maintaining a flat position during tricky passages for maximum sound, striking all parts of the keys to achieve maximum variety of tone. Only he had that curious way of curling up the little finger of his right hand during the fastest runs, saving it for a strategically placed wake-up accent. “The most important thing,” he explains, “is to transform the piano from a percussive instrument into a singing instrument. A singing tone is made up of shadows and colors and contrasts. The secret lies mainly in the contrasts.”

Never far away is his wife Wanda, whose life of subordination to two great mercurial artists-her father was Toscanini-doesn’t show in her imposing presence. Part mother hen, part Madame Defarge, she plays the long-suffering keeper with tart humor: “I have nothing to say to you after 52 years,” she snaps, looking fondly at her mischievous husband. In Vladimir Horowitz: A Reminiscence she goes through lovingly maintained scrapbooks that show him as the wayward genius of a vibrant Jewish family and, during his years as a young expatriate on the international concert stage, a matinee idol with the sex appeal of Valentino.

Toward the end of Horowitz in Moscow , the pianist closes his program with the farewell encore he played at his comeback recital in 1965: Schumann’s “Träumerei” (“Dreaming”). The camera pans through the audience and, as Horowitz imbues the wistful melody with an inexpressible tenderness, lingers on a listener whose bulbous head and shock of white hair suggest that he might be a high-ranking party apparatchik. His nose is red, and tears are running down his cheeks. He’s staring helplessly into the music.