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One hundred years on, JOHN BELL YOUNG provides a critical appraisal of legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz


Many years ago, in the luxurious Upper East Side townhouse of Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz, Constance Keene, a prominent young pianist and a member of their inner circle, asked, after a game of bridge with her hosts, if she could play something for the maestro. Gracious as always, the dapper, nattily dressed Horowitz, his patterned silk bowtie and matching pocket square slightly akimbo, consented.

Taking her seat at the Steinway grand in their elegant drawing room, awash with the fragrance of fresh roses, she launched into a performance of one of Rachmaninoff's most difficult works. She had chosen to play his Prelude in E flat minor, which is comprised in part of a continuous string of rapid double notes in the right hand alone. Looking for a reaction, and perhaps a critique of her performance, she waited for the master's verdict. After all, not only was Horowitz considered by many to be the greatest living pianist, but he had also been a friend of the composer.

'It was wonderful,' he said in the thickly accented English he seemed to value as distinctive ever since leaving Russia in 1927, 'but you should speed up at the end.'

'But why?' Ms Keene asked timorously. 'Rachmaninoff doesn't indicate any such thing in the score!'

'Ah,' whispered Horowitz, a sardonic grin crossing his face as if he were imparting to her a remarkable new discovery. 'Good box office!'

Perhaps it was this heightened awareness and understanding, so in tune with the pulse of audiences, that endeared Horowitz, who would have been a hundred years old on 1 October 2003, to the public for most of the twentieth century, and distinguished him from virtually every one of his colleagues. While to some it might have seemed evidence of a cavalier streak, for Horowitz it had musical legitimacy, too. And yet ask anyone who heard him in person, or is familiar with recordings, and they will tell you that there was far more to the Horowitz mystique than that.

Indeed there was. Horowitz, to an extent that few if any of the most celebrated concert artists could claim, was more than a pianist, or even a musician, on stage and off: he was an event. He had an acute sense of what stimulated the public. His meticulously planned long absences from the stage only contributed to the public's collective excitement and anticipation.

He was something of a showman, too, albeit a discrete one who, once offstage, was perfectly willing to spin the myths about him -- his idiosyncratic tastes, his seemingly supernatural technique, the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of his only daughter at age forty, his homosexuality, his nervous breakdowns -- like nobody's business. He enjoyed his celebrity, and exploited it to the fullest.

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Copyright © 26 October 2003 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA


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