Monday, April 21, 2014

Horowitz and Beethoven - an uneasy pairing

By Hank Drake

Horowitz’s relationship with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven was troubled but worthy of study. Although VH had great respect for Beethoven the man, he found much of Beethoven’s keyboard writing awkward and unpianistic, particularly the last five Sonatas, written when the composer was almost totally deaf. VH’s approach to Beethoven was highly selective, he recorded only six of the master’s 32 Sonatas, one set of variations, and one concerto. His private repertoire extended much further. He performed several Beethoven works in public, including the Sonatas in E-flat, Op. 31 No. 3, and A-flat, Op. 110, but never authorized any recordings of either for release. In 1976 he considered recording the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, but ultimately decided not to pursue the project. By that time, music critics had knocked his Beethoven playing so often that he may have been reluctant to perform this repertoire at all. Fortunately, VH left to posterity a small but mostly admirable selection.
Horowitz’s Beethoven discography began in 1934 with the 32 Variations in C-minor, WoO. 80. The playing is lean, taut, tense, and structurally clear. Tempos are much faster than would be conventional today, but scarcely raised an eyebrow in 1934. Rachmaninoff’s tempos in his distinguished 1925 recording are similar. Unlike Rachmaninoff, Horowitz plays the entire work.
On April 23, 1933, VH performed the Piano Concerto in E-flat, Op. 73, the so-called “Emperor” Concerto, with Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic -- their first collaboration together, and one which was to have extra-musical implications for both Horowitz and Toscanini. (Following the performance, Horowitz met Toscanini’s daughter, Wanda. After a whirlwind courtship, they were married in Milan that December.) Horowitz’s approach to the “Emperor” continued to be influenced by Toscanini’s conception long after the two had stopped performing together. In 1952, Horowitz finally recorded the work, not with Toscanini, but with Fritz Reiner, with whom VH had collaborated one year earlier in the Rachmaninoff Third. Like Toscanini, Reiner was a virtuoso conductor of the first rank. Unlike Toscanini, who had a tendency to steamroll soloists into following his conception of a work, Reiner was a somewhat more sympathetic, collaborative artist. The recording, with a fine “pickup” orchestra, and sounding quite good for 1952, takes a crisp, somewhat nervous, approach, with slightly faster than average tempi. The conception is generally straightforward, but VH makes very minor alterations to the piano writing, extending a few bass lines into the lower reaches of the keyboard. Beethoven’s own piano did not extend as far, and it is reasonable to surmise that Beethoven would not have objected to changes on so minor a level. But it raised hackles with many record critics and musicians. (It is interesting to note that Wilhelm Kempff made similar changes in his recordings of the “Emperor,” and no one seemed to mind or even notice.) Reiner’s contribution is distinguished, with the orchestra providing a sharp, cleanly defined profile, and not a bar of this performance could be referred to as “ponderous”, unlike, say, recording by Arrau or the elder Rubinstein.
In 1959, Horowitz chose Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op.10 No. 3, for part of his first stereo recording. He had performed the work publicly in the 1940s, and comparison to the private recording of his 19?? Carnegie Hall recital reveals little difference in approach. The first movement is played rather quickly, but with some drawn out ritards at climaxes (Anton Schindler reveals that Beethoven had the same tendency, was VH purposely emulating Beethoven’s performance style?). The rhythmic vitality of Horowitz’s performance, and his capturing of Beethoven’s pianistic humor, are a delight. The slow movement, Largo e Mesto, is taken at a tempo referred to as “heroically slow” in 1959, but the movement sounds normal to 21st Century ears, another example of how tempos have generally slowed down in recent decades. VH’s tempo is, in fact, too slow to be playable on the pianos of Beethoven’s time, which had little sustaining power -- the melody would have become dissociated. Is this an instance of Beethoven composing for the piano of the future? The answer rests in the ears of the listener. The last two movements are played in a straightforward manner, but notable for their sparse pedaling--directly in conflict with Beethoven’s markings, but understandable considering the longer sustaining power of the modern piano. (Incidentally, the 1998 Living Stereo re-release, coupled with the 1959 Appassionata is a vast improvement over the Gold Seal issue.)
Beethoven’s Sonata in C-minor, op. 13, the Pathetique,” was one of Horowitz’s greatest successes in this genre. The first movement is taken at a relaxed tempo (a rarity, many pianists tend to rush here) with the phrasing flexible yet coherent, the melody and accompaniment securely balanced, and the trills perfectly weighted and snapped off (Arthur Rubinstein played them in the same manner). The Adagio cantabile, which has gained dubious fame as Karl Haas’ “theme song”, is a textbook example of ideal balancing of theme & accompaniment. The final movement, like the first, is taken at a relaxed pace, with very little variation from his basic tempo. Horowitz seems less interested in “storming the heavens” than advancing a clear musical argument.
VH recorded the de riguer “Moonlight” Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op 27 No. 2, three times--mainly to satisfy contractual obligations. Record company executives were the bane of Horowitz’s existence until very late in his career, when he had attained so much notoriety that he could “record the C major scale and it would sell” in the words of Thomas Frost. The first recording, made on 78-rpm discs in 1946, is uneventful. Technically, he plays the work very well, but it all sounds bit perfunctory -- particularly the opening Adagio sostenuto, with its casually loping triplets. Ten years later, Horowitz returned to the work. Unfortunately, in 1956 he was very reluctant to leave the confines of his home. So RCA engineers were brought into VH’s living room, which was not acoustically appropriate. The result is a very poor recording of an excellent performance. Horowitz fretted over the opening movement for many months, and had recorded a take, at a rather brisk tempo. Just as the record was about to be “pressed,” however, he rerecorded the first movement at a much slower tempo - causing considerable irritation at RCA, which had to haul recording equipment back to Horowitz’s living room. It was worth the inconvenience. This is one of the most deeply felt Moonlights on record, particularly the first movement. Elsewhere, the Allegretto is exquisitely balanced & weighted; the Presto agitato filled with the spiky electricity that was a hallmark of the Horowitz style, especially in the sharp, recurring accents. This is one of the few recordings contained in this discography that pleased Horowitz himself, even toward the end of his life. (One wishes VH fretted over the album cover as he did the actual recording. Complete with moonlit score and wax dripping candelabra, this was an example of the 1950s tackiness that attracted Liberace’s public.) In 1972, as he was finishing his contract with Columbia, he was persuaded to record the “Moonlight” once again. Like the 1946 version, this performance is smoothed out and uneventful, slick and modern--even cold. One can admire the clarity of the finale, as well as the technical finesse and excellent recorded sound, but VH’s heart is clearly not in the performance. (Once again, Horowitz is not helped by an atrocious album cover, this one featuring a pink moon backed up by disco style lettering. What were those graphic designers thinking?)
Both of VH’s recordings of the “Waldstein” Sonata in C major, Op.53, made in 1956 and 1972, alternately delight and distract. His feminine way of phrasing the first movement’s second theme, beautifully voiced as it is, is especially foreign to Beethoven’s masculine approach. Purists will also be annoyed by Horowitz’s rewriting of the finale’s coda: where Beethoven has written octave glissandi, Horowitz substitutes octaves played presto and staccato. It has been speculated elsewhere that Horowitz considered octave glissandi unplayable on the modern piano. Nonsense, I’ve played it as written myself, as have many pianists. Horowitz just did not like the way Beethoven’s writing sounded, so he changed it. Still, it cannot be said that these performances are boring, and in today’s homogenized pianistic culture, that alone is adequate recommendation. The 1972 version is preferable, as the pianist is a bit more scrupulous about dynamic markings, and sound on the 1956 recording is atrocious.
VH was more attuned to the bravura Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, the popular “Appassionata.” The 1959 recording, part of his first stereo album, shows a sober Horowitz concentrating on the structure, rather than the drama, of the first movement--no heart on sleeve hysteria here! The second movement variations are played as simply and directly as Horowitz can manage. The finale is taken at a sensible tempo, more ma non troppo than allegro. But VH tends to get caught up in detail, rather than maintaining forward motion. The 1972 version is more successful all around. Horowitz allows more of his innate theatricality to come through, thereby increasing the drama of the piece. He also resists the temptation to stress individual phrases for effect, at the expense of the whole, thereby increasing the structural cohesiveness. Especially noteworthy is the finale, taken at an unhurried tempo (it’s actually easier to rush this movement), with virtually no pedal, but with overwhelming effect. Truly a triumph of the will over the limits of the flesh.
Horowitz was not congenial to late Beethoven, and felt that the piano works after Op. 81a were not meant for public performance--certainly not in today’s mammoth concert halls. Nevertheless, Rudolph Serkin remembered hearing VH play the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Op. 106, at home and described it as “incredibly beautiful.” VH made an exception to his ban on Beethoven’s late piano music for the Sonata in A major, Op.101, performing it occasionally: in the 1930s, in 1967, 1980, and during his disastrous 1983 tour. In 1988, the intrepid Thomas Frost found several performances from 1967 recitals, cobbled them together, and nervously presented the final product to VH for approval. Much to Frost’s surprise, Horowitz consented to release the Beethoven, along with several shorter works. This is pianistically one of the finest Op. 101s ever committed to disc (but concert performances from 1980 are even more polished). For once, Beethoven’s murky late piano writing is clear. The first movement sounds almost Wagnerian in its pathos. The dotted rhythms in the march are Schumannesque, the accents nearly brutal--no other performance so clearly demonstrates Beethoven’s influence on Schumann. The fugue is played with unprecedented clarity, despite a few quite inconsequential wrong notes--few pianists get through this fugue unscathed. In the end, one envies Serkin for hearing Horowitz’s “Hammerklavier.”


© Hank Drake, 2004
Mr. Drake is the author of the upcoming book Toward the Flame: Reflections on Vladimir Horowitz, which will contain an updated version of this article, which originally appeared at