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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Horowitz and Barbirolli/Rach 3 and Tchaikovsky

Horowitz and Barbirolli:

the ultimate Rachmaninov Third and Tchaikovsky First?


Michael Glover



This essay was written for the booklet of APR 5519, which coupled Horowitz and Barbirolli’s live 1941/1940 Carnegie Hall performances of these two concerti.  It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and APR Records.







This CD comprises rare recordings of the two concerti that played a central role in establishing Vladimir Horowitz as one of the most celebrated and influential performers of the 20th Century.  During the first decades of Horowitz’s career, the Tchaikovsky First was presented as his virtuoso calling card, the fearsome attack of its double octaves sometimes driving audiences to near pandemonium, while the Rachmaninov Third served to demonstrate the extent to which Horowitz’s inimitable musicianship, combined with a starling technique capable of all manner of keyboard sorcery, could rescue a major score from the partial oblivion into which it had fallen.  Indeed, Horowitz was largely responsible for the Third Concerto becoming a permanent fixture of the international concerto repertoire.

When Alexander Merovich, the manager who was to bring Horowitz and violinist Nathan Milstein to the West in 1925, first heard the pianist in concert, it was in a Moscow reading of the Liszt E flat Concerto, a performance that led Merovich to discount Horowitz as just another young pianist with more sinews than sense.  Only a subsequent concert featuring the Rachmaninov Third convinced Merovich to engage the pianist for a concert tour of European cities.  Four days before his American debut of 1928, Horowitz was invited by Rachmaninov himself to perform the work in the basement of Steinway’s New York showroom, with the composer providing a reduction of the orchestral score on a second piano.  Although Rachmaninov said little during the encounter, he later told friends that Horowitz had more than justified the ecstatic accounts he had heard of the young virtuoso’s European triumphs in the Third Concerto, exclaiming to Abram Chasins: “He swallowed it whole”.

Horowitz’s first recording of the Rachmaninov Third was made by HMV in London in 1930, with Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  The pianist later complained that he had not been allowed to do what he wanted in the brief studio time allotted.  Certainly, one can imagine the discomfort Horowitz must have felt at the need to dismember the work into segments in order to fit comfortably onto nine 78 rpm sides.  Nevertheless, with its miraculous lightness of articulation and supremely natural phrasing, this has always been for many a superlative reading.  Indeed, the recording drew generous praise from Artur Rubinstein, who wrote in the second volume of his memoirs “My Many Years” of his astonishment at first listening to the newly-minted 78s at the home of a friend: “Misia announced proudly: ‘You will hear an amazing record: Vladimir Horowitz playing the Third Concerto by Rachmaninoff’.  She piled up three or four records on her turntable and we heard the most brilliant performance.  It certainly was the finest record I ever heard.  Misia noticed with pleasure the astounded expression on my face.”

Two decades had passed by the time Horowitz re-recorded the work with Fritz Reiner and the NBC Symphony in 1951.  The young man’s unaffected yet noble romanticism had by this time given way to a more contrived, regimented delivery, though such is the harried intensity of Horowitz’s playing that the emotional temperature runs even higher than it had done with Coates.  The minor errors that pepper the Reiner recording may attest to Horowitz’s strained nerves during the years that culminated in a twelve year retirement from the concert platform in 1953.  A live performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Serge Koussevitzky at the Hollywood Bowl from 1950 treads a similar path, though the voltage and Horowitz’s focus prove more erratic.  In both of these accounts, the pianist’s precipitous approximation of the treacherous chordal descent to the third movement coda contrasts starkly with his earlier partial side-stepping of the same bars in 1930, and the lumbering awkwardness of his slow-motion delivery of the same passage in 1978, when the Third Concerto was chosen to mark Horowitz’s golden jubilee year.

Some of the Rachmaninov Third performances that Horowitz gave during that jubilee season were impressive (and played without the previously-applied cuts), marked by tumultuous excitement, fascinating detail and a plaintive lyricism.  Unfortunately, his dishevelled, highly nervous first outing with the work on 8 January 1978 was memorable for all the wrong reasons, yet it was this performance that was officially recorded and issued – along with patches to cover the most embarrassing mishaps – by RCA.  A fairer representation of the septuagenarian Horowitz’s capabilities in this score is afforded by the televised performance with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic of 24 September.

The year of this CD’s live performance with John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (1941) might imply a reading occupying interpretative ground mid way between the commercial recordings with Coates and Reiner, yet this is actually far from the case.  Horowitz and Barbirolli produce a performance that must rank as the fastest ever, yet the instinctive poise of Horowitz’s playing, the implausible perfection of his articulation, the feverish command of the large-scale chordal writing of the cadenza and the slow movement’s central climax make this a fabulous account which stands apart from – in many ways above – all others, including those of Horowitz himself.  Olin Downes, reviewing the concert for the New York Times of 5 May 1941, wrote that “[the Rachmaninov Third] requires a musician with head, heart and hand to give the work its due.  Mr Horowitz has never played here with more color and command, or truer sentiment or intrepidity.”  Such an accolade is even more striking given the acclaim with which Downes had greeted Horowitz’s performance of the same concerto with identical forces one year earlier, writing in the New York Times of 16 February 1940 that “With a stupendous performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto Vladimir Horowitz turned last night’s concert of the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall into one of the season’s foremost events.  Rachmaninov was present in the huge audience, a most fortunate composer to hear this masterly work of his given so incomparable a reading.”

The Tchaikovsky First proved the ideal display vehicle for Horowitz in the three decades leading up to his 1953 withdrawal from the concert stage, providing umpteen occasions when the pianist could dazzle his audience with the white heat of his octaves and the propulsive force of his passagework.  Sadly, the opportunities for virtuosic spectacle presented by Tchaikovsky’s fervent (yet often unpianistic) writing could sometimes prompt Horowitz to disengage his interpretative powers, the unlikely mechanical precision of his ferocious technique fashioning a sleek, ice-cold facsimile of the work, its musical values left wholly unexplored.  Such is the case with the two performances with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1941: the studio recording of 6/14 May and the live broadcast of 19 April.  Both Horowitz and Toscanini later declared themselves dissatisfied with their commercial recording of the work, where a record-breaking dash through each movement does nothing more than demonstrate the extent to which velocity, in isolation, is no substitute for genuine involvement.  The famous War Bond concert broadcast of 25 April 1943 – later released by RCA – provides a far more satisfying account; Toscanini is less inflexible and Horowitz is consequently able to transform the almost militaristic delivery of the earlier readings into playing of tremendous passion and romantic intensity.

The incredible fervour of the 1943 concert performance provides an idea of the clamour Horowitz created with this concerto during his initial years outside Russia.  His first major European success came in Germany in 1926, when he deputised for an indisposed pianist in Hamburg, playing the Tchaikovsky First at an unrehearsed performance that Horowitz began as an unknown pianist from Russian and ended – amidst a storm of chromatic octaves – as “The Tornado from the Steppes”.  The Tchaikovsky First was also chosen for his New York debut of 1928, a concert at which Horowitz was joined as fellow debutante by Sir Thomas Beecham, that scourge of head-strong soloists.  Both artists were determined not to be upstaged and their failure to reach agreement on tempi led to Horowitz’s breaking free in the last movement to finish a whole bar ahead of the orchestra.

Although Horowitz found Sir Thomas a far more conducive collaborator on a later tour of Britain, during which the two finally managed to syncronise their tempi in the Tchaikovsky, his favourite concerto partner was Bruno Walter, and it is Horowitz’s 1948 Carnegie Hall account with Walter and the New York Philharmonic Symphony that is perhaps the most memorable of all his issued performances, his playing emerging with overwhelming impact, the electrifying bravura here matched by a hyper-intense poetry to which Walter and the orchestra respond with warmly romantic yet brilliantly incisive playing.  A performance from 1949, with William Steinberg conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, is largely sabotaged by the threadbare orchestral playing, though Horowitz also appears uncomfortable at the surprisingly slow tempi and stumbles his way through the first two movements before rekindling his powers to deliver a spirited third movement coda.  The celebrated live performance with George Szell and the New York Philharmonic from 12 January 1953 matches the Walter account for visceral excitement, yet the vehement passion of that 1948 reading here tends towards neurotic hysteria, Horowitz’s wild nervous energy propelling him towards each climax with a furious abandon.  Horowitz never performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto after 1953.

Horowitz’s 1940 reading with Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Symphony, reproduced on this CD, is less ferociously driven.  If it lacks the almost savage intensity that was to take hold of his playing over the next decade, it is nevertheless a performance that proves often satisfying on its own terms, with a greater sense of spontaneity and genuine interplay between soloist and orchestra, creating a reading of telling contrast.  Indeed, the distinction of the orchestral contribution did not escape Olin Downes who, writing in the New York Times the day after the concerto, remarked: “This was the first concerto which Mr. Horowitz played when he came to America, in which he made his debut, with the same orchestra, but under Thomas Beecham, Jan. 12 1928.  At that concert Mr. Horowitz was not fortunate in such an accompaniment as Mr. Barbirolli gave him yesterday…At the end Mr. Horowitz acknowledged wild applause with Mr. Barbirolli, who richly deserved his share of the laurels of the event.”


© Michael Glover 1997