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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Horowitz in the Brahms Concertos

Horowitz in the Brahms Concertos – A Mismatch Made in Heaven..?

Michael Glover


This essay was written for the booklet of APR’s 2-CD set, APR6001, comprising three live Horowitz/Toscanini performances of the two Brahms concertos.  It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and APR Records:




Whilst the Tchaikovsky First and Rachmaninov Third concertos served as Horowitz's virtuoso calling cards, generating the wild successes that were to propel his early career to its sudden heights in Europe and America (see APR 5519), the two Brahms concertos were to become the works in which critics felt most able to proclaim the pianist's profundity as a musician.  Ironically, although Horowitz's Brahms concerto performances more often than not met with rave responses, his own opinions could hardly have been more damning, both of his interpretations and (increasingly with the years) of the merits of the works themselves.  Speaking in 1987, for example, he declared, "Not long ago I heard a broadcast of the Brahms B flat Concerto that I recorded with Toscanini [the 1940 studio recording for RCA - a commercial and critical success at the time] and I asked myself why I ever did it.  Whatever its status as music, it is not a concerto for me.  I never liked it very much, and I played it so badly, and my ideas about the music were so different from Toscanini's .  Metrically he was so much stricter than I was.  I didn't enjoy rehearsing this performance at all."  By contrast, New York Times critic Olin Downes had described the 6 May 1940 concert performance of the concerto that preceded that studio recording by three days as "magical...Nothing Mr Horowitz has done here has indicated more impressively his growth as interpreter as well as virtuoso of his instrument.  What Horowitz achieved with the keyboard part...was something to make giddy the heads of those it most stirred and gratified."  The dichotomy between Horowitz's own assessment and that of contemporary critics was even starker in the D minor Concerto: "As with the late Beethoven Sonatas," he said, "I admit its great message, but it is not my kind of music.  Rachmaninov heard the New York performance [of 17 March 1935, issued here] on the radio and telephoned me, asking how I could ever play this awful music.  It is poorly orchestrated and poorly written for the piano, he said."  And yet W.J. Henderson writing in The Sun had called that same performance "finely conceived and beautifully executed", whilst Olin Downes in the New York Times had declared that Horowitz's playing "has seldom had the splendor of tone, firmness of grasp and outline, awareness of the composer's requirements that were manifest last night."  Lawrence Gilman of the Herald Tribune was similarly positive: "Dazzling virtuosity...devoted strictly to a publication of the music's essential traits...Continence and purity of style." 

Could Horowitz's harsh, dismissive self-appraisal have been solely the result of his increasing antipathy towards Brahms, a hostility that grew with the years he spent away from the composer's music ?  "He may be one of the three Bs, but he is a very little B compared to Beethoven or Bach," Horowitz told David Dubal in 1987, "I do not like him anymore...I cannot warm up to him...He is long-winded."  Or was his bitterness also tied in with his frustration with the "intellectual" repertoire in general ?  After all, his only consistent successes in this area came in the two Brahms Concertos, yet he apparently believed he was playing these works under false colours - those of his relentlessly strict and domineering father-in-law.   Fortunately for collectors, this CD set publishes for the first time the fabled (and only recently unearthed) performance of the B flat Concerto that Horowitz and Toscanini gave at the 1939 Lucerne Festival, providing important and compelling evidence that, contrary to the pianist's own view, he and Toscanini were able to fashion a more genuinely collaborative performance of the work that married discipline and intense ardour to flexibility and lyrical introspection, penetrating to the music's soul.

Horowitz had come relatively late to both the concertos and learned the Second several years before the First.  Indeed, he didn't hear the concertos in concert until 1926: "The first time I heard both Brahms Concertos was in Berlin; Schnabel played the B flat Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Furtwängler.  I was so enraptured that I learned the work in one summer.  But I didn't play any music like Schnabel; he was a very intellectual pianist."  (Horowitz made clear elsewhere that he had been far more taken with the concerto than Schnabel's way with it.)  His first performances of the work the following year were not critical successes, however: "the limits of Horowitz's talent become visible," reported the Hamburger Nachrichten of a performance with Karl Muck and the Hamburg Philharmonic in October 1927, noting that the performance had been "irreproachable in all technical aspects" but that Horowitz "played the piece with more attention to the virtuosic than the musical aspects."  Ironically, Horowitz was to gain far greater acceptance playing the work the following year with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Furtwängler (a conductor he professed to despise) in a re-thought interpretation that was to form the basis for the success he achieved in the concerto from that time onwards.

Horowitz and Toscanini first worked together on the B flat Concerto in February 1934, but not with Toscanini on the podium; on that occasion the Italian coached the young Russian for a performance with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Hans Lange.  Toscanini was certainly in charge five years later in Switzerland, however, when the two came together for a performance of the work at the Lucerne Festival, an event that had been instigated the previous year as an alternative to Salzburg for the many artists who now could not or would not attend the Nazi tainted Austrian festival. In both years, the Busch Quartet formed the section leaders of the elite Festival orchestra, Adolf Busch having assured Toscanini that he could furnish the string sections (which contained players from several other leading quartets, such as the Tonhalle, Bern and Basel ensembles), with Ernest Ansermet supplying the wind and percussion sections (many members coming from his Suisse Romande Orchestra).  Playing on 29 August 1939 before an audience that included festival participants Casals, Walter, Boult, Serkin, Mengelberg, Feuermann and Huberman, Horowitz and Toscanini had elected to substitute the Brahms for the previously programmed Mozart A Major Concerto, K.488, mindful of the need to offer a big programme for the Festival's closing concert (in the second half came Beethoven's Seventh Symphony followed by the Leonore III Overture).  In the event, nobody could have been disappointed by the choice of concerto; the sold-out Kunsthaus reacted ecstatically to playing that a visiting American critic wrote in the Atlanta journal "had passion, strength and in the Andante poetic serenity of a very exalted order...The impression was profound and the pianist was wildly acclaimed."  Three days later Germany invaded Poland and Horowitz and the Toscanini clan set sail for New York in all haste.

Hearing this Lucerne performance six decades on, the first thing that will strike many listeners (after a somewhat bumpy opening) is the spontaneity and rhapsody of Horowitz's playing: the pianist allows himself time for greater inflection of rhythm and dynamic, whilst his voicing is more varied than in the two 1940 performances.  Toscanini responds with orchestral playing that is incisive yet not without warmth and suppleness; the regimented drive that was to partially blight later performances is here less dominant, augmented with lyricism and romantic flexibility.  Horowitz sounds wholly engaged; clearly he is far less the captive partner than one year later, adding caprice and even impetuosity to his expressive arsenal.  The virtuosity is at times miraculous - the tricky double octave and double note passage of the Scherzo is played truly sotto voce and pianissimo - yet Horowitz's playing is never victim to the oppressive modern craving for accuracy über alles.  Although the Andante is taken at a flowing tempo, the central Più adagio (molto espressivo) could hardly be more intimate or poignant.  The last movement - alternating winningly between charm and volatility - suggests an element of high-spirited competition between soloist and conductor.

By contrast, the two readings from 1940 (the Carnegie Hall performance of 6 May and the RCA studio recording three days later) feature sinewy, tightly regimented playing from pianist and conductor.  In both cases the last two movements show some signs of flexibility and affection, yet the grainy fabric of Brahms' piano writing frequently sounds alien to Horowitz.  The pianist is on a short leash and there can be little doubt that Toscanini is holding it - according to NBC violinist Edwin Bachmann, the undercurrent at the concert rehearsal had been one of "fear - Horowitz's fear of Toscanini".  The relative austerity notwithstanding, Horowitz and Toscanini nevertheless succeed in tracing the work's dramatic outline with almost unmatched unanimity of purpose; never for a moment does the concerto sound cumbersome or distended.  The more bracing studio recording is particularly impressive in this respect.  Neither performance can compare, however, to the later Carnegie Hall account of 23 October 1948 [issued here], where the Russian and Italian build magnificently on the stark 1940 blueprint to fashion a performance of grandeur and ardency that does not forsake humanity for clarity and streamlined drive.  Although not as consistently spontaneous or, indeed, as moving overall as the rediscovered 1939 Lucerne performance, the 1948 account nevertheless offers a superbly proportioned view of the work that evokes power and glowing lyricism in almost equal measure.  Pianist and conductor are wholly at one and Horowitz has never sounded in more resolute command of the solo part.

Horowitz had learned the Brahms D minor Concerto specifically for Toscanini, who wished his son-in-law to perform the work during a Brahms cycle he was conducting in New York in 1935.  After a preparatory performance with Pierre Monteux and the Ochestre Symphonique de Paris on 25 November 1934, Horowitz played the work with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic on 14, 15 and 17 March 1935 in Carnegie Hall.  The final of the three concerts was broadcast live and acetates made off-air form the basis of the current issue.  Any listener attuned to stereo-era performances of this concerto will at once be struck by the galvanising velocity of Horowitz and Toscanini in 1935: their movement timings are 16'49, 12'14 and 9'06 (total 38'09), which compare with 21'48, 14'32 and 11'34 (total 47'54) for Stephen Kovacevich's 1992 EMI studio recording with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the LPO (a representative modern account).  As Harold Schonberg points out in his biography of Horowitz, the fact that none of the contemporary critics even referred to speed in their reviews of the 17 March 1935 concert performance suggests that the Horowitz/Toscanini tempi were not considered abnormal at the time (nevertheless, one wonders whether more than a handful of pianists would have been able to manage Brahms' tricky, unpianistic writing at such speeds).  In Horowitz's hands the piano part is transformed into an abandoned virtuoso tour de force.  The playing is not reverential, weighty and magisterial in the manner we have come to expect in this work, but instead furious and highly charged - always exciting, often on edge (Horowitz gnashes at many of the octave and chordal figures) and at times even demonic and macabre.  Climaxes are frenzied rather than massive in scale.  Whilst there is a lack of flexibility and repose in the outer movements from both pianist and conductor, there is no doubting the crushing purposefulness and almost vicious intensity of the music making.  In the slow movement, Horowitz matches the concentrated singing quality of Toscanini's strings with superbly sustained legato playing, before launching into the finale at a cracking pace.  

Horowitz often complained that he was straitjacketed by Toscanini, and the performance of the D minor Concerto he gave one year later with Bruno Walter and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (20 February 1936) does indeed feature a more supple pulse (tempi are slightly more relaxed overall) and more plangent lyricism.  Whilst the broad thrust of the interpretation remains similar, Horowitz responds to the greater freedom afforded by Walter (his favourite concerto collaborator) with playing of richer variety yet almost undimmed intensity.  One week later Horowitz played the work in Britain with the Hallé Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent; Neville Cardus' notice in the Manchester Guardian might have applied equally to the performance with Walter: "Horowitz is deepening in expression - musical expression - every day.  His Brahms at this concert was not teuton, but by no means small.  There was eloquence without effect and without the obvious classical attitude."  Years later, Horowitz asserted that he had played the concerto no more than a dozen times between 1934 and 1936 and then forgotten it as soon as possible

It is fascinating to speculate upon Horowitz's likely reactions to this current issue, in particular the 1939 Lucerne Festival performance.  Perhaps acquaintance over the years with only his RCA studio recording of the B flat Concerto - "I didn't like anything about it", Horowitz told The New York Times in 1975, "It was too fast, too metronomic, boring" - and recollection of traumatic rehearsals with Toscanini soured his memories of just how musically involved and how "Horowitzian" (in the best sense) his finest performances of the two Brahms concertos had been.


© Michael Glover 2000



Bibliography and acknowledgements:


"Horowitz" - Glenn Plaskin (William Morrow & Co., Inc. 1983)

"Horowitz - His Life And Music" - Harold C. Schonberg (Simon & Schuster 1992)

"Evenings with Horowitz" - David Dubal (Robson Books 1991)

"Remembering Horowitz" - ed. David Dubal (Schirmer Books 1993)

"Toscanini" - Harvey Sachs (Robson Books 1993)

"Understanding Toscanini" - Joseph Horowitz (faber and faber 1987)

Grateful thanks to Tully Potter for the facts he provided on the 1938 & 1939 Lucerne Festivals