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Born in Berdichev, Ukraine, on 1 October 1903, Horowitz had an exceptionally savvy ear from childhood. Not limited either by his remote location or the habits of less dedicated musicians, he devoted himself, even at that young age, to studying the whole gamut of the musical literature. By the time he was a teenager he could play by memory transcriptions of whole symphonic works and operas, and was already intimately familiar with much vocal and chamber music.

As a young man, Horowitz wore his hair long and bore an uncanny resemblance to Chopin. With virtually no money in his pocket, he abandoned Russia to find success early on when he nailed down an important engagement in Hamburg. His electrifying performance there of Tchaikovsky's famous B flat concerto brought the house down, a feat he repeated in New York in 1928, setting the press and music world on fire virtually overnight.

Not since Liszt had anyone heard blistering octaves like they did that evening, or whole strings of notes purring in the ravishing pianissimo that would become his hallmark. Nor had the piano music devotees ever been exposed to bel canto phrasing so exceptionally deft and liquid that it that seemed to transform eighty eight keys into a chorus of voices and other instruments. Gelb likens him to 'a great and charismatic athlete who goes for broke; he made his unfettered performances feel like a joy ride for the public'.

From that moment on the public, at a time when classical music had lost neither its prestige nor respect among young people, awarded him with celebrity normally reserved for rock stars. No classical pianist before or since, save perhaps Van Cliburn, has commanded such idolatry on stage or off. At virtually every one of his sold out recitals in New York and elsewhere, thousands of fans would sleep on the street in front of Carnegie Hall so as to compete for the few remaining tickets made available at the box office.

'Certainly, he was the greatest of all pianists in emotional comprehension and technical wizardry,' says David Dubal, a close friend of the pianist and author of Evenings with Horowitz. 'There was always more color and such tremendous communicative power. Never in his playing was there a fossilized moment'.

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


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