Much has been written recently about the doom awaiting the classical music recording industry as labels slash budgets, terminate artist contracts and reduce the numbers of releases. Orchestras with long associations with record labels now find themselves with no recording deals at all, and the likelihood of young artists being able to make and distribute recordings is shrinking quickly. One area, though, in which classical recording is trying to hold onto some semblance of relevance, is in the idea of recording an archive of musical history. The Naxos label has been fairly aggressive in reissuing very old monaural recordings from the earliest days of recording, and other famous performances are showing up on new CD releases. Such is the case with the current recording, made at one of the most important classical music concerts of the twentieth century: Vladimir Horowitz’s solo recital at Carnegie Hall on May 9, 1965.
The conditions of this event have become almost legendary. At the time of the concert, Horowitz – one of the most famous and revered pianists of the last hundred years – had not performed publicly in twelve years. Word of his return to public performance were picked up by the international news services, and hopeful concertgoers camped outside the Carnegie Hall box office the night before the tickets went on sale. Horowitz’s stage fright was considerable, and he was late in arriving to the Hall; at the behest of the Columbia recording company, the air conditioning was shut off, elevating the temperature in the standing-room-only auditorium to that of a sauna.
Columbia Masterworks (now Sony Classical) issued a recording of the concert several months later, a recording whose technical perfection seemed to belie the recollection of the concert’s attendees who recalled numerous slips in the great virtuoso’s fingering, especially in the opening Bach-Busoni Toccata in C Major. It now turns out that the 1965 recording incorporated undisclosed edits to the recorded live performance, apparently using test-recordings made during Horowitz’s rehearsals for the event. The current recording dispenses with those edits and presents the program of the concert as it was actually heard on that day in 1965.
I have never heard the original recording, so I cannot make a direct side-by-side comparison of the two; but listening to the current recording (issued in part to observe the centenary of Horowitz’s 1903 birth), I’m not sure I’d want to. The musicality of the performance comes shining through, and in any event, we now know that the current recording is authentic. On the basis of this recording, I have to wonder what other gems of live performance sit in the vaults of the record companies, awaiting reissue.
Horowitz was known in life as “the Last Romantic,” and hearing his playing here, it’s not hard to see why. For all Horowitz’s amazing technique – there are no pianists today who have such command of the instrument as he did – he was celebrated all the more for the expressiveness of his playing. He had absolute control over the tone of the piano, and could make it sing better than any pianist I, personally, have ever heard. Few things in life are more soulfully beautiful than Vladimir Horowitz’s playing of a Chopin Ballade (here, the Ballade in G-minor, op. 23) or Schumann’s “Traumerei,” one of Horowitz’s most common encores. Chopin and Schumann are both represented well in this concert, as is another of Horowitz’s specialties: Scriabin, that most mystically Romantic of all Russian composers. Horowitz had a special affinity for Scriabin, and as always to experience this affinity aloud, as in this recording’s “Black Mass” Sonata (op. 68) or the Poeme (op. 32, #1) is magnificent.
Horowitz Live and Unedited also includes, as filler on the second disc, a complete studio recording of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen,” made three years before the great 1965 concert. (“Traumerei” comes from the “Kinderszenen,” hence that piece’s double appearance on this recording.) The package also includes a bonus DVD, which apparently contains outtakes from several documentaries made about Horowitz, although the DVD was not part of the review package, and thus I cannot evaluate it or even list its contents. Likewise, the liner notes were not provided, so I cannot comment on their quality, either. But this recording, sans-DVD and liner notes, is still a treasure.
(Sony Classical, 2004)
(For historical information on the background of the 1965 Carnegie Hall concert, I am indebted to reviews written by Lance G. Hill and Hank Drake.)