CLIFTON, N.J. — IN the closing days of the last century, child prodigy Mieczyslaw Horszowski gave a recital in Vienna before Emperor Franz Josef. Now, more than 90 years later, the Polish-born pianist is preparing for an April 23 recital at Carnegie Hall, to help celebrate Carnegie's centennial. Mr. Horszowski remains active as a recitalist, teacher, and recording artist. Just shy of his 98th birthday, he is enjoying the longest active career of any first-rank artist, having out-distanced Casals, Segovia, Rubinstein, and Horowitz, all of whom performed well into their sunset years.
Yet in an interview he appears unimpressed with his achievements. ``Age to me is but a relative thing,'' he says. ``It is nothing so profound.''
As if to prove it, his last concert, in January at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, won critical acclaim. L.A. Times critic Martin Bernheimer wrote: ``Horszowski played an astonishing recital and has always been a pianist's pianist. ... Flash and fuss were never his specialties. For him, the music came first.''
Recently the New York Times observed, ``As he approaches 100, he only seems to improve.''
Horszowski still walks to his classes at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he has been a faculty member for close to 50 years. He has influenced and taught a legion of distinguished pianists, such as Peter Serkin, Murray Perhia, Eugene Istomin, and Andras Schiff.
Though his eyesight and hearing have faded to the point that he no longer reads music, he performs what he remembers best. ``...I have to see the notes in my mind well in advance. I have to fill my memory with notes these days,'' he says.
A small man at about 5 feet tall, he exudes a warm smile and enthusiastic outlook. His speech is slow and deliberate, laced with a heavy Eastern European accent.
As a child prodigy and a student of the famed pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, he was favorably compared with his compatriot Josef Hofmann. By age 14, Horszowski was a veteran of the concert stage, having performed throughout Europe and South America. On Dec. 30, 1906, he made his American debut at Carnegie Hall. Between 1902 and 1911, he averaged about 100 concerts annually. Today he performs about 15 recitals a season here and in Europe.
``There are times when he worries whether he'll have the strength for the performance,'' says his wife, Bice. ``But he must perform. He has been doing it all his life. It is as natural for him as a fish to swim. He enjoys it very much. To listen to him play is an education for all of us.''
Critics feel the character of his playing has changed little over the years. As he gets older, Horszowski claims to need less practice. ``Today the piano literature for me is a question of study, not practicing. I practice until the fingers lose their attentiveness; then I stop.
``Between the wars, I was known as a modern pianist,'' he notes. ``I specialized in Ravel and Debussy.'' Today his repertory centers on the masters: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin.
Horszowski is not one to dwell on the past. ``When I was 70, I said I would never write my memoirs,'' he recalled. ``...I like to keep my mind open and fresh for new impressions.'' Pressed, however, he does confess to a feeling that years ago there was greater respect for music and musicians.
He also feels that records have changed the habit of listening to music. ``Chopin and Liszt were contemporaries, yet they played very differently,'' he said. ``Today, most pianists try to play like the recordings, and audiences expect that. In a way it is like hearing a piece of music played at a competition. When you hear it over and over again, you hear it faster and faster. You are bored!''
Still active in the recording studio himself, he has made an album of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin music that will be released soon by Nonesuch.