Scarlatti, Haydn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Rimsky Korsakov, Debussy, Stravinsky, Poulenc
reviewed by Neville Cohn
In this centenary year of pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s birth in 1903, a flood of re-issues of recordings he made over a long career brings to a new generation of listeners the idiosyncratic virtuosity of a musician whose artistry captured the imagination of millions. This is yet another fascinating compilation in Naxos’ admirable CD series devoted to resurrected recordings made by great pianists mainly during the first half of the 20th century.
For sheer digital brilliance and phenomenal left-hand power and authority, Horowitz was virtually without peer, as is abundantly evident in these performances recorded between 1932 and 1934 when at the peak of his formidable form.
Some may take issue with his over-romanticised treatment of two Scarlatti sonatas. But few, surely, would fail to thrill to his near-incredible finger facility, especially in relation to his trademark, machinegun-rapid repeated notes and wondrous glowing tone in the Sonata in G, L487. And in Haydn’s Sonata in E flat major, Hob XVI/52, the sort of music that could at times suffer from overly flamboyant treatment at the hands of the Russian-born virtuoso, is here enchanting. The outer movements bristle with vitality but very much in context in stylistic terms there is no lapse into vulgarity here; it is the
essence of good taste, musicmaking that, even in repose, fully engages the attention, as does his account of Schumann’s Arabesque, masterly in its simplicity of presentation, and capable, surely, of melting the iciest heart.
Nowadays, keyboard athletes in Olympian form are ten a penny, all of them endeavouring to emulate the great Vladimir. But, digitally agile though they may be, there is little to distinguish one from the next. Frequently, there is a conveyor-belt- sameness about their presentations that make it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish one from another. Not so this extraordinary pianistic wizard. In the athletic stakes, he could hold his own against any comers but his instantly recognisable keyboard style marks his offerings instantly and memorably. Is there a pianist alive who could so effectively mine Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor from opus 10 for its savage grandeur as does Horowitz? Or bring to Danse Russe from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka such sizzling energy and accuracy at top speed?
Horowitz is not often thought of in relation to the music of Debussy or Poulenc. But when he turned his attentions to these French masters, the results could be extraordinary. Listen to the exceptional clarity and control of arpeggionated figures – and subtle pianissimo shadings – in Debussy’s ferociously tricky Etude XI. Listen to Poulenc’s Pastourelle as it caresses the ear as well as Poulenc’s Toccata. In Horowitz’s hands, it flashes into fantastically energetic and nimble life, as does Rachmaninov’s arrangement of Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.
Oceans of ink have been spilled extolling the merits of Horowitz’s 1932 recording of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. Here, words seem superfluous in this landmark performance in which music so eloquently picks up the thread that language drops.