Horowitz: The Keyboard Titan Left an Incomparable Legacy

VLADIMIR HOROWITZ was the last of a unique musical breed - the grand-style virtuoso whose legendary status was earned as much for their prodigious technical gifts as their flamboyant musical and stage personalities. Horowitz, who died Sunday in New York, was piano's Herbert von Karajan or Lawrence Olivier - each an irreplaceable titan in his respective field. Throughout his long career, Horowitz brought technical panache to possibly the highest level it will achieve in the 20th century, and for that alone he has earned a place among the keyboard immortals. That he was as much a showman off-stage as in his performance triumphs only added to the legend of this complex, moody artist.

As with every larger-than-life virtuoso, Horowitz was a showman. He also loved the good life, and he came to expect to be generously paid for his playing and pampered in the process. When touring during the last two-and-a-half decades of his life, he would play only on Sundays at 4 p.m., and only in cities where he approved of both the hall and the hotel; he demanded fresh Dover sole and draperies in his hotel rooms thick enough to shut out light.

Horowitz, who was born in Berdichev, Russia, in 1904, first won fame for his concert-hall triumphs and often superlative recordings. His 1930 recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto created a sensation, as did his live performances of the work. Josef Hofman, the pianist to whom the work was dedicated, used Horowitz's performances as an excuse never to play the piece. The composer became a good friend to, and champion of, Horowitz. Rachmaninoff made Horowitz promise he would play the First Concerto, a promise that, regrettably, was never kept.

If Europe made Horowitz a success, America bestowed on him the status of icon. His RCA Victor recordings spanned the first part of his American career, from the early '40s to his unexpected retirement in 1953 (right after a 25th anniversary Carnegie Hall recital, recorded live by RCA). They capture the bewildering range of Horowitz's digital dexterity and musical priorities.

Horowitz had wanted to be a composer, but by the time he gave his first recitals in 1922 in Khar'kov, he needed food and clothing and decided to continue performing. He made his Berlin debut in 1926, his US debut in 1928. He moved to the States in 1939, became a citizen in 1942, and never returned to composition, at least publicly.

The Horowitz magic, as amply documented on records, was primarily a tonal phenomenon. The clarity of the runs was breathtaking - each note surely voiced no matter what the speed of the passage. His playing of Clementi and Scarlatti single-handedly revived interest in these composers' keyboard works. He conjured sounds from a Steinway that were instantly recognizable - unique for their brilliance and the sheer range of dynamics, from crystalline quietude to thunderous roars. Yet the sound was never mere banging. It is not surprising, then, that in music that was primarily virtuosic Horowitz was without equal.

His Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev, even his Samuel Barber, were magnificent for their glorious bravura thrills, sumptuous tonalities, and rich array of colors. But he also made music sing eloquently, and proved incomparable in his ability to sustain a wistful, melancholic mood, which was an inimitable part of his Russian heritage.

In his later years, when the fingers were noticeably less reliable, he recorded a Mozart concerto (K. 488), and that performance - with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala (Deutsche Grammophon CD 423-287-2) - showed an entirely new facet of the Horowitz persona.

The recorded legacy is formidable. RCA will surely issue commemorative CDs from its vast archive; DG's final recording was just released a month ago (``Horowitz at Home''), and Sony Classical, which recently lured him away from DG with an enormous fee, may be able to salvage a recital that is said to have been two sessions away from completion. There is a small, rather too idolatrous video legacy as well. And somebody really must issue the CBS-TV broadcast of the pianist's special '68 Carnegie Hall recital.

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