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Well Played – Vladimir Horowitz


Lianyi Zhang

It was the late 20s in Paris, when Arthur Rubinstein, whose name should be familiar to the dear readers who have read our first article of this series, first visited the recital of a young pianist from Kyiv, and was blown-away by not only the “sheer brilliance and technique” of the performer, but also “an easy elegance – the magic something which defies description”. The young man on the stage was Vladimir Horowitz. Among the piano maestros of the twentieth century, Horowitz is the most celebrated throughout the world.

Horowitz the Pianist

Born in 1903 and studied in Kyiv, the young Volodya started his performing career in Europe in the 20s. The ambitious pianist soon turned his eyes to the other side of the Atlantic and moved to New York before WW2 broke out. With his unsurpassable technique and specialty of Russian repertoires, Horowitz has utterly conquered the audience of the States. Two of his most frequently performed pieces in this period are the first piano concerto of Tchaikovsky – his sonorous and wild version of the famous octaves in the end of this concerto is irreplaceable – , and the third concerto by Rachmaninoff, whom Horowitz regarded as his most valued mentor and friend. After a ten-year-long retirement from stage in the 50s, Horowitz returned Carnegie Hall in 1965. Tickets were sold out within two hours. Despite the wrong notes, the concert was a triumph. And so continued the legend of Horowitz. Partly because the decline of technique due to his aging, Horowitz turned his interest to slightly shorter pieces in his later years. Sonatas by Scarlatti and Clementi, etudes by Scriabin or small pieces by Schumann are often heard in his later recordings and concerts. In 1986, the 83-year-old maestro returned to Russia after 60 years and played a legendary concert in Moscow. Towards the end of the concert, as Schumann’s Träumerei echoed as an encore in the hall of Moscow Conservatory, it softened everybody’s heart and many had cried.

It is hard to find a word that epitomizes Horowitz the pianist. In a documentary from his later years, the pianist is entitled “the Last Romantic”, and in another album, “the Poet”. To me, I’d choose the word “wizard”. This does not merely refer to what Mr. Rubinstein has remarked, but also to his unsurpassable technique which every piano player can only dream of. Horowitz can create any kind of sound he wants with his beloved Steinway. With such ability, the wizard never restrains himself in the scores of the composers, but rather keeps bringing out new interpretations. That’s why his rendition is always unpredictable and full of surprises. A boisterous smash on the bass could be responded by an accord as softest as one can imagine; among a group of crystal clear short notes you may catch some legato notes with a rich velvet-like texture.

Horowitz the person

Horowitz belongs to those people tend to call “a venerable artist from the older generation”. Manner and etiquette are of great importance to him. He never accepts any visitor without wearing a tie. Equally rigorous is he to his own appearance. He’s never seen without a trimmed hairstyle and tidy face. Like most of well-dressed gentlemen of his time, Horowitz liked to purchase tailored garments and fragrances from London. One of his favorite scents is Stepanotis from Floris. 

The sophisticated dressing style of Vladimir Horowitz is as unique as his musical style. The most iconic Horowizian accessory is without doubt the bow tie. He is a famous bow tie wearer and has a collection of more than 800 bow ties. The color of the bow tie often determines the tone of the whole look. A knitted slipover – also often seen on him – for example, always match the bow tie. Just like not restraining himself from the scores, Horowitz also doesn’t restrain himself from white tie on stage. “The uniforms”, by which Horowitz means his stage clothes, are rather conservative, but the bow ties he wears are always colourful. There was once an interesting exception though: when playing in London for HRH the Prince of Wales, Horowitz opted for the proper attire: a morning suit – but still, with a grey bow tie around his neck instead of a regular tie. After all, it is the great Horowitz we’re talking about.