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Hyperion Records

APR5519 - Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos

Recording details: Various dates
Carnegie Hall, USA
Release date: June 1997
Total duration: 66 minutes 0 seconds

Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos
Allegro ma non tanto  [14'24]  recorded 4 May 1941
Intermezzo: Adagio  [8'41]  recorded 4 May 1941
Finale: Alla breve  [11'16]  recorded 4 May 1941

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This CD comprises rare recordings of the two concerti which played a central role in establishing Vladimir Horowitz as one of the most celebrated and influential performers in the history of the piano. During the first decades of Horowitz’s remarkable career, the Tchaikovsky First was presented as his virtuoso calling card, the fearsome attack of its double octaves sometimes driving audiences to near-pandemonium, whilst the Rachmaninov Third served to demonstrate the extent to which Horowitz’s inimitable musicianship, combined with a startling technique capable of all manner of keyboard sorcery, could rescue a major score from the partial oblivion into which it had fallen. Indeed, Horowitz was largely responsible for the Third Concerto becoming a permanent fixture of the international concerto repertory.

When Alexander Merovitch, the manager who was to bring Horowitz and violinist Nathan Milstein to the West in 1925, first heard the pianist play in Moscow, it was in the Liszt E flat Concerto, a performance which led Merovitch to discount Horowitz as just another young pianist with more sinews than sense. Only a subsequent concert featuring the Rachmaninov Third Concerto convinced Merovitch to engage the pianist for a concert tour of European cities. Four days before his American debut of 1928, Horowitz was invited by Rachmaninov himself to perform the work in the basement of Steinway’s New York showroom, with the composer pro­vid­ing a reduction of the orchestral accompaniment at a second piano. Although Rachmaninov said little during the encounter, he later told friends that Horowitz had more than justified the ecstatic accounts he had heard of the young virtuoso’s European triumphs with his Third Concerto, exclaiming to Abram Chasins: ‘He swallowed it whole.’

Horowitz’s first recording of Rachmaninov’s Third was made by HMV in London in 1930, with Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The pianist later complained that he had not been allowed to do what he wanted in the brief studio time allotted. Certainly, one can imagine the discomfort Horowitz must have felt at what was his first concerto recording session, particularly the need to dismember the work into segments in order to fit comfortably onto nine 78-rpm sides. Nevertheless, with its miraculous lightness of articulation and supremely natural phrasing, this has always been for many a superlative reading. Indeed, the recording drew generous praise from Arthur Rubinstein, who wrote in the second volume of his memoirs, My Many Years, of his astonishment at first listening to the newly minted 78s at the home of a friend: ‘Misia announced proudly: “You will hear an amazing record: Vladimir Horowitz playing the Third Concerto by Rachmaninoff.” She piled up three or four records on her turntable and we heard the most brilliant performance. It certainly was the finest record I ever heard. Misia noticed with pleasure the astounded expression on my face.’

Two decades had passed by the time Horowitz re-recorded the work for RCA with Fritz Reiner and the NBC Symphony in 1951. The young man’s unaffected yet noble romanticism had by this time given way to a more contrived, regimented delivery, though such is the harried intensity of Horowitz’s playing that the emo­tional temperature runs even higher than it had done with Coates. The minor errors which pepper the Reiner recording may attest to Horowitz’s strained nerves during the years which culminated in a twelve-year retirement from the concert platform in 1953. A live per­formance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Koussevitzky at the Hollywood Bowl from 1950 treads a similar path, though the voltage proves more variable, with Horowitz appearing more interested in some passages than others. In both of these accounts, Horowitz’s precipitous approximation of the treacherous chordal descent to the third movement coda contrasts starkly with his earlier partial side-stepping of the same bars in 1930, and the lumbering awkwardness of his slow-motion delivery of this same passage in 1978, when the Third Concerto was chosen to mark the pianist’s Golden Jubilee year.

Some of the Rachmaninov Third perform­ances which Horowitz gave during his Jubilee season were extremely impressive (and played without any of the previously applied cuts), with tumultuous excitement and fascinating detail registering in thrilling quantity. Unfortunately, his dishevelled, highly nervous first outing with the work on 8 January 1978 was memorable for all the wrong reasons, yet it was this perform­ance which was officially recorded and issued – along with patches to cover the most embar­ras­sing mishaps – by RCA. A fairer representation of the septuagenarian Horowitz’s capabilities in this score is afforded by the televised per­form­ance with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic of 24 September.

The year of this CD’s live performance with John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Symphony (1941) might imply a reading occupy­ing interpretative ground mid-way between the commercial recordings with Coates and Reiner, yet this is actually far from the case. Horowitz and Barbirolli produce a performance which must rank as the fastest ever, yet the instinctive poise of Horowitz’s phrasing, the implausible perfection of his articulation, the feverish command of the large-scale chordal writing of the cadenza and the slow movement’s central climax make this a fabulous account which stands apart from – in many ways above – all others, including those of Horowitz himself. Olin Downes, reviewing the concert in the New York Times of 5 May 1941, wrote that ‘[the Rachmaninov Third] requires a musician with head, heart and hand to give the work its due. Mr Horowitz has never played here with more color and command, or truer sentiment or intrepidity.’ Such an accolade is even more striking given the acclaim with which Downes had greeted Horowitz’s performance of the same concerto with identical forces one year earlier, writing in the New York Times of 16 February 1940: ‘With a stupendous performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto Vladimir Horowitz turned last night’s concert of the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall into one of the season’s foremost musical events. Rachmaninov was present in the huge audience, a most fortunate composer to hear this masterly work of his given so incomparable a reading.’

The Tchaikovsky First proved the ideal display vehicle for Horowitz in the three decades leading up to his 1953 withdrawal from the concert stage, providing umpteen occasions when the pianist could dazzle his audiences with the white heat of his octaves and the propulsive force of his passagework. Sadly, the oppor­tu­nities for virtuosic spectacle presented by Tchaikovsky’s fervent writing could sometimes prompt Horowitz to disengage his interpretative powers, the unlikely mechanical precision of his ferocious technique fashioning a sleek, ice-cold facsimile of the work, its musical values left wholly unexplored. Such is the case with the two performances with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1941; the studio recording of 6 and 14 May and the live broadcast of 19 April. Both Horowitz and Toscanini later declared themselves dissatisfied with their commercial recording of the work, where a record-breaking dash through each movement does nothing more than demonstrate the extent to which velocity, in isolation, is no substitute for genuine involvement. The famous War Bond concert broadcast of 25 April 1943 – later released by RCA – provides a far more satisfying account; Toscanini is less inflexible and Horowitz is consequently able to transform the almost militaristic delivery of the earlier readings into playing of tremendous passion and romantic intensity.

The incredible fervour of the 1943 concert performance provides an idea of the clamour Horowitz created with this concerto during his initial years outside Russia. His first major European success came in Germany in 1926, when he deputised for an indisposed pianist in Hamburg, playing the Tchaikovsky First at an unrehearsed performance which Horowitz began as an unknown pianist from Russia and ended – amidst a storm of chromatic octaves – as the ‘The Tornado from the Steppes’. The Tchaikovsky First was also chosen for his New York debut of 1928, a concert at which Horowitz was joined by that scourge of head-strong soloists, Sir Thomas Beecham, also making his New York debut. Both artists were determined not to be upstaged and their failure to reach agreement on tempi led to Horowitz’s breaking free in the last movement to finish a whole bar ahead of the orchestra.

Although Horowitz found Sir Thomas a far more conducive collaborator on a later tour of Britain, during which the two finally managed to synchronise their tempi in the Tchaikovsky, his favourite concerto partner was Bruno Walter, and it is Horowitz’s 1948 Carnegie Hall account with Walter and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra which is perhaps the most memorable of all Horowitz’s published performances, his playing emerging with overwhelming impact, the electrifying bravura here matched by a hyper-intense poetry to which Walter and the orchestra respond with warmly romantic yet brilliantly incisive playing. A performance from 1949, with William Steinberg and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, is largely sabotaged by threadbare orchestral playing, though Horowitz also appears uncomfortable at the surprisingly slow tempi and stumbles his way through the first two movements before rekindling his powers to deliver a spirited third movement coda. The celebrated live performance with George Szell and the New York Philharmonic from 12 January 1953 matches the Walter account for visceral excitement, yet the vehement passion of that 1948 reading here tends towards neurotic hys­teria, Horowitz’s wild nervous energy pro­pelling him towards each climax with a furious abandon. Horowitz never performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto after 1953.

Horowitz’s 1940 reading with Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Symphony, repro­duced here, is less ferociously driven. If it lacks the almost savage intensity that was to take hold of his playing over the next decade, it is never­the­less a performance which proves highly satisfying on its own terms, with a greater sense of spontaneity and genuine musical interplay between soloist and orchestra creating a reading of more telling contrast. Indeed, the distinction of the orchestral contribution did not escape Olin Downes who, writing in the New York Times the day after the concert, remarked: ‘This was the first concerto which Mr Horowitz played when he came to America, in which he made his debut, with the same orchestra, but under Thomas Beecham, Jan. 12 1928. At that concert Mr Horowitz was not fortunate in such an accom­paniment as Mr Barbirolli gave him yesterday … at the end Mr Horowitz acknowledged wild applause with Mr Barbirolli, who richly deserved his share of the laurels of the event.’

Michael Glover © 1997

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