In the current issue of BBC Music Magazine, we examine the extraordinary legacy and life of pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Here, we speak to four of today’s top pianists about the impact the controversial musician had on their lives
‘One tends to forget how good Horowitz is. I’ll put on a record, maybe having not heard of anything for a year, and honestly in certain repertoire he blows everyone else out of the water. Some Scriabin, some Rachmaninov, Some Liszt, even some Chopin – some of his Mazurkas are as beautiful as anyone has ever done them – and of course no one plays his transcriptions anything like he does.
‘The reason for this is, I think, twofold. One: he always appears vulnerable. He’s a tightrope walker with no net underneath. You’re always aware that there’s a human being behind it. There are many players who sound as if it’s a machine playing, not in a brutal way but just an efficient way, like someone knitting a sweater and you know that not a stitch is going to be dropped. You feel that Horowitz is like a tapestry rather than a bit of knitting.
‘The second thing is that he knows how to control rhythm. You feel the tension. That combination of the vulnerable and the rhythmic tension – and that unmistakable sound, partly due to the piano he played which was voiced so high that no one else would have been able to control it. It’s the energy from the bottom of the back right through the back of the shoulders and the arms into the keyboard.’
‘I heard Horowitz playing quite a number of times live and every time I heard him I had exactly the same impression which was that he could do everything he wanted. You were just a little surprised at some of what he wanted. He had this tremendous control but had lapses of taste – a subjective thing, I know – when you could hear him do the most beautiful things and the most ugly in the same concert. I remember him doing an absolutely stunning performance of the Schumann Humoreske and in the same concert the worst performance of Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz I have ever heard – and I’ve heard a few. Maniacally stupid, and poor sound from start to finish, even the middle section.’
‘One of my most treasured recordings in the world is Horowitz’s performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. I don’t think anyone has ever touched that. I feel terribly proprietorial about Schumann and there are very few pianists I like to hear play him – Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida are are two – but no one comes close to Horowitz’s Kreisleriana. And then there are those little encore pieces like Étincelles. Fantastic. Horowitz is a god, a hero.’
‘I remember his Schumann as being wonderful – the Humoreske, the Fantasy from the Carnegie Hall Return concert, then the early Kreisleriana. I’ve often wondered how he managed to produce that huge sound without it being percussive. Is it to do with the flat fingers – and terrific tension in that case – and what did he do with his thumbs? Even if it was fortissimo, everything was so varied tonally within the fortissimo. I went through a stage when I went off him and gave away a lot of my vinyls, but the Scarlatti and Clementi – well, we all love that, don’t we. But he did mess around with stuff a lot – the end of the Mephisto Waltz and the Rákoczi March – it’s too much. But I do like the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. That’s clever.’
To find out more about the life and work of Horowitz, pick up a copy of the current issue of BBC Music Magazine – and you can also hear him perform on this month’s cover CD.