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<<  -- 4 --  John Bell Young    BOTH ANGEL AND DEVIL

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Horowitz was, in effect, a freak of nature, not only for his breathtaking technique, but also for his ability to duplicate in his piano playing the range, nuances and mellifluous qualities of the human voice. This he did to such an extraordinary degree that, at times, the two were indistinguishable. Indeed, in his hands the piano became a reservoir of vivid acoustic possibilities, belying its construction from wood and metal.

'The most important thing is to transform the piano from a percussive instrument into a singing instrument,' he insisted. 'A singing tone is made up of shadows and colors and contrast. The secret lies mainly in contrasts'.

His was an exceptionally transparent sound world where bold, rhetorical declamation mingled with the most privately articulated intimacies. Though hardly a scholar, his philosophy was simple: play from the heart, but let the intellect be the guide. He could stretch the limits of good taste, ignoring the demands of a score or the conventions of period style, and yet play with the warm, affective simplicity of a storyteller at the hearth. 'I have no idea what I am doing, but I know when it is wrong,' he confessed only days before his death to fellow pianist, Mordecai Shehori. 'It is all by intuition!'

At other times, his playing could be extreme, combining high drama with diabolical abandon. Such radical pianistic behavior shook listeners to the core, as if they were in the presence of Zeus hurling thunderbolts. For Horowitz, silence in music was nothing to ponder, nor dynamics an occasion for contemplation. Nor was lighting-fast speed in passagework an opportunity to squander. On the contrary, he treated these as intensely visceral energic events worthy of harvesting for their expressive content, at times at the expense of their structural function. These he conveyed in any case as matters of life or death. While certainly stylistically informed, with a technique that knew no limits, his playing was never cerebral or driven by intellectual analysis, but inspired by instinct and his gut. He was, as Wanda was fond of saying, both angel and devil.

Even those who loathed his playing, which could sometimes be indulgent and aesthetically indifferent to the demands of the score, admired him, if for nothing else than for his uncanny ability to find in whatever he played something wholly new, fascinating and absorbing. Even so, his approach was anathema to the academic crowd and a few critics (no one more so than composer and critic Virgil Thompson, who was merciless in his attacks) evidently intimidated by his audacity and in their view, irreverence.

'Shrinking violets and pedants have always been repelled by aspects of Horowitz's art, but it was impossible for him to give a conventional or bland performance,' notes Dubal, speaking from his office at the Julliard School, where he teaches. 'He was a great master of the fleeting, imprisoned mood that you would otherwise not even know is there; everything he did was a kind of refurbishing.'

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

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