Wizard of the keyboard can still bewitch listeners

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Vladimir Horowitz's name on a billboard or in one newspaper ad is still all it takes to fill Carnegie Hall to the rafters (even at $75 a seat downstairs), as was proved Dec. 15. Only Arthur Rubinstein's name, among pianists, had the same effect on concertgoers. Both musicians possessed the unique ability to captivate and bewitch a hallful of listeners, Rubinstein with his simplicity and emotional directness, Horowitz with his unique brand of digital pyrotechnics. To have heard Horowitz in top form -- or near top form -- was to have heard a master virtuoso who knew how to thrill an audience with a superbly executed run up the scales, spectacular dynamic builds to thunderous clim axes, and an array of the softest, most delicate sounds, projected with clarity and purity throughout the hall.

But the past few recitals had been spotty affairs, and unfortunately his most recent one before this season, two years ago at the Metropolitan Opera House, was so poor that one fully expected to hear that Horowitz would retire permanently from the concert stage. But the wizard has confounded even his sternest critics.

Recently he has been the subject of a new documentary, ``Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic.'' Deutsche Grammophon (DG) recorded a recital program in Carnegie Hall. He has played two recitals to delirious acclaim in Paris. And two Sundays ago he made another Carnegie Hall appearance. The program was on the short side, consisting of chestnuts from his past repertoire -- Scarlatti sonatas, Schumann's ``Kreisleriana,'' Scriabin etudes, Schubert, Schubert-Liszt, Liszt, and Chopin. For the most part, it wa s a superb affair.

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The ``Kreisleriana'' was a disappointment, primarily because Horowitz seemed short of stamina. Thus, while the inward-looking pages were put forth with beauty, the climaxes never rang out. Yet he can still muster thunder from his ivories, as he proved in the Scriabin C-sharp minor Etude, starting with unexpected quietness and built to a roar of passion -- which the audience in turn greeted with a roar of acclaim.

And the best was yet to come. The variations of the Schubert Impromptu were delectably fragile, yet full of texture and color. A Liszt transcription (No. 6 of the ``Soir'ees de Vienne'') of a Schubert waltz showed that the slyness of the Horowitz wit remains undimmed. He relished Liszt's respectful lampooning as well as the fancy finger work -- particularly those gossamer runs where every soft note was played with an evenness, a clarity, and a haunting beauty that have always been the trademark of

this great performer. Few pianists have ever been so exquisite in miniatures, so that his reading of Liszt's F-sharp major Impromptu found the audience holding its collective breath.

Horowitz has been known to turn pieces into mere digital showcases, but in two Chopin Mazurkas (A minor, Op. 17, No. 4 and F minor, Op. 7, No. 3) and the A-flat major Polonaise, Op. 53, he never let it be forgotten that these are inspired by dance forms. The Mazurkas had a rare cohesive tension, and in the Polonaise he imaginatively stressed different notes in the various chords, giving an unusual drama to the introduction. And the last of three encores was the sort of quiet yet fiendishly fast Moszkows ki Etude that Horowitz still tosses off with awesome facility.

Happily, there is talk of concert dates in Chicago and Boston in the early part of 1986. The documentary will be released for home video within the next few months. The sound track and first recital should be out on DG records shortly. And there is more talk -- of concerto recordings, more recitals, more projects. It is the sort of aura that ought to surround a living legend, and when he plays so magically, Horowitz demonstrates he is worthy of the title.

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