Recordings, video give insights into Horowitz's eventful year

When Vladimir Horowitz steps onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House here this Sunday, he will be ending one of the most event-crammed years of his concert career. Horowitz has dazzled Europe and the Orient. His historic return to Moscow after a 62-year absence garnered him a huge amount of media coverage. For a while, he was a better-known classical artist than even Luciano Pavarotti, what with his magazine cover stories, his page-one coverage, and the two-hour documentary that included the entire recital, aired two different times on ``CBS Sunday Morning.''

This year has also seen the release of the first three albums to come from his recent switch to Deutsche Grammophon Records. The first, entitled simply ``Horowitz'' [DG 419 045-1 (LP); 4129 045-2 (CD)], featured the performances in a movie ``Vladimir Horowitz - The Last Romantic,'' and was recorded in his living room. The second, ``Vladimir Horowitz: The Studio Recordings'' [DG 419 217-1 (LP); 419 217-2 (CD)], offered his latest views on Schumann's ``Kreisleriana'' as well as some music he had never recorded before. ``Horowitz in Moscow'' [DG 419 499-1 (LP); 419 499-2 (CD)] is just that - his recital program, taped during rehearsal and at the actual concert event.

The Russian-born pianist has been heralded as the most celebrated keyboard artist of the century. As a young man, he stunned the world with his high-velocity fingerwork, and his musical propulsion and abandon. There were those who complained of notes for notes' sake, of too much of a good thing, and there were others who were simply happy to bask in such remarkable technical accomplishment.

Though his career has been interrupted by several lengthy sabbaticals from concert work, his every appearance of the past two-and-a-half decades has been greeted as a major musical event, even when he is clearly in technically reduced form, as was the case several seasons back.

The Deutsche Grammophon recordings - tangible souvenirs of this fruitful period in his artistic life - find the pianist in variable form. The performaces taped in his living room, devoid of the context of the film for which this is the soundtrack, are paltry things indeed. One senses that he is noodling at the ivories without much vigor or real inspiration. And his playing of the Chopin B-minor Scherzo is simply not good: The fingers do not respond, there is no depth to the tone, and it is most untidy technically and rhythmically.

In listening to the studio recordings right after the living room affair, it becomes clear that Horowitz needs a big space and that an event is about to be made. In a phrase, Horowitz is not Horowitz unless he is playing in a studio, or preferably, in a large hall and in front of an animated audience.

That particular sharing of energy animates his performances on ``Horowitz in Moscow'' in a way that even the studio recordings only intermittently allow. That said, his new views of ``Kreisleriana'' (from the studio sessions) are fascinating not just for the sorts of sonorities he still conjures, but for the deeper thoughts this music brings out of him.

But this is nothing new for Horowitz, whose greatest recordings were always of live Carnegie Hall events. Having once heard it, who can forget the thrilling Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with his father-in-law, Arturo Toscanini, conducting the NBC Symphony? Then there is the extraordinary 25th-anniversary recital of 1953, as well as the spectacular ``Historic Return'' taped May 9, 1965, and released by CBS Masterworks. The latter offers some of the most consistently remarkable playing Horowitz has offered in the past 30 years, made even more electrifying by the presence of a deliriously responsive audience.

And while there is no point pretending that octogenarian Horowitz's pianistic powers are what they were over 20 years ago, one can still find magic aplenty in the ``Horowitz in Moscow'' recording.

Anyone who saw the recital on TV will find the LP or CD even more revealing. For without the distraction of video images, the listener can fully savor the impact of the special brand of Horowitz wizardry captured in Moscow. It shows up in so many selections, from Scriabin to Rachmaninoff, from Mozart to Scarlatti. The program itself is not weighty, but the playing is clearly worthy of acclaim.

For those who cannot get to his Met recital but want to have the visual side of Horowitz as well as the sonic, MGM/United Artists has just released the ``Horowitz in Moscow'' video for home VCR consumption.

All told, these add up to an impressive series of accolades for one of the century's enduring pianistic legends.

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