Volodya

In my twenties I immersed myself in European Classical Music. At that time it was comparatively easy to listen to almost everything recorded by Vladimir Horowitz. There’s also a good deal of valuable critical reception, much of it fascinating and entertaining. Nobody else embodies the romantic myth of the great concert pianist quite like Volodya.

Two of the key pieces in his repertoire were the Chopin G Minor Ballade and the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto. Even a casual Horowitz fan can tell you exactly what they think of his multiple recordings of both pieces. At the time of my immersion I accepted conventional wisdom and liked the first studio recording of the Ballade and the “middle” Rach 3 with Fritz Reiner.

For some, Horowitz is cheap and theatrical. They say he overplays the instrument and occasionally just bangs around. (In later years, this situation was not improved by a special piano tweaked to maximum brightness.) His fans reply that the emotional struggle is real. The pianist faces down the demons and is willing to fail in the attempt, and it is partly this vulnerability that makes Horowitz so charismatic.

(Alex Ross’s recent piece about Wilhelm Furtwängler includes a relevant passage: “In an age of note-perfect digital renditions, what’s most striking is Furtwängler’s willingness—and his musicians’ willingness—to sacrifice precision for the sake of passion.”)

A new G Minor Ballade from 1946 has surfaced on YouTube. It’s messy and outrageous. Horowitz repeatedly plays past the limits of his technique, an effect I associate more with the pianist in later years. It’s not “better” than the celebrated studio version of similar vintage but it is still a thrilling listen.

A friend sent the following with the note, “Horowitz supposedly regarded the 1978 Rach 3 from Ann Arbor as his best performance of the piece.” The official “Golden Jubilee” Rach 3 from the same era with Eugene Ormandy is controversial: Among other things, the New York Philharmonic is not in good shape, or at least they have trouble understanding the pianist and conductor. In Ann Arbor the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra are willing to go down with the ship, and the resulting moments of rubato are astonishing. The sense of occasion is real. Incredible document. I had no idea that Horowitz could still play this well in the late ’70s.