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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 / Ballade No. 4 / Polonaise-fantaisie (Horowitz) (1947-1957)
Although Horowitz’s concept of Chopin, characterised by extremes of dynamics and tempi, divided the critics over the years, as one of them wrote in 1958 of a disc containing the Barcarolle heard here,‘If your choice in Chopin interpretation runs to largescale, grandiose treatments, magnificent panoramas of sound, delicacy and yet tremendous virility, obtain this record by all means. The overall effect is breathtaking.’ The tempo Horowitz chooses for the first movement of this 1950 recording of Piano Sonata No. 2 may seem surprisingly slow, yet the relationship between the first and second subject is far more logical than many performances where the second subject is often played much slower than the first. The 1949 recording of the Ballade No. 4 has never been reissued but is presented here for its rarity and in conjunction with the artist’s approved 1952 remake of the same work.
By David Denton
To today’s younger generation, Vladimir Horowitz represents a virtuoso pianist who had perfection high on his list of musical priorities. A teenage virtuoso born to a prosperous family, he found himself supporting his once wealthy parents in the aftermath of the Revolution by giving countless concerts, many in partnership with the young violinist, Nathan Milstein. He eventually left the newly founded Soviet Union in 1925 at the age of 22 and began a nomadic life in Europe. Finally exhausted by the number of concerts demanded of him, he suffered a physical breakdown in 1936 and spent two years recovering in Switzerland. Moving to the States at the onset of the Second World War he created a sensation with the brilliance of his playing. His ill-health caught up with him again in the mid 1950’s this time forcing him to retire from the stage for 12 years. He did eventually enjoy an Indian Summer before his death in 1989, and it is this part of his career by which he is now largely remembered. He had lived with Chopin’s Second Sonata for many years, having first recorded the work just before his first breakdown, and it was to be in 1950 that he made this version at sessions in New York’s Town Hall. It is a highly charged and at times restless view, the famous Marche funebre taken at a more urgent pace than we normally hear. The clarity of his playing throughout the work is remarkable, the shape of each movement carefully considered. The remainder of the disc is given to the Barcarolle in F sharp minor; Ballade No. 4; Poloniase No.7; the Third Etude and the First Scherzo. There is delicacy to be found in performances that avoid the capricious approach that has today become fashionable, the playing more solid and bristling with technical brilliance. Turn to the mercurial Scherzo for a sample of his shameless showmanship. In sum I do not subscribe to the critics who find him willful in his approach to Chopin, though this collection of original 78’s probably found Horowitz at his most self-effacing. With the Naxos restoration the sound of the various New York locations between 1949 and 1957 is uniformly good.
Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) Chopin: Piano Works
Born into a prosperous, cultured family in 1903, Vladimir Horowitz received his first piano lessons from his mother. At the age of nine he entered the Kiev Conservatory where he studied with two pupils of Theodor Leschetizky, and from 1919 studied with Felix Blumenfeld, who had been a pupil of Anton Rubinstein. In 1920, the year that he graduated from the Kiev Conservatory, Horowitz made his début in that city. His family had lost everything in the Revolution, so young Vladimir had to earn a living as a pianist. During this period he also performed with violinist Nathan Milstein playing to packed houses in Petrograd in 1923 and during the following concert season Horowitz gave twenty recitals of ten programmes. Horowitz left the Soviet Union in 1925 to make his début in Berlin (and to avoid military service). He had great success after three performances in Berlin in January 1926, and a performance in Hamburg secured his reputation in Germany. In February he conquered Paris and thereafter received great acclaim throughout Europe.
By 1936 Horowitz was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Not long after concerts in London, which received less than favourable reviews, he retreated from public appearance for two years to recover his physical and mental health in Switzerland. During the 1940s he lived in the United States and performed a great deal. In 1953 he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his American début, but the following month a performance of the Piano Sonata in B flat, D. 960 by Schubert received bad notices. Again, overworked and exhausted, the highly-strung Horowitz retired from the concert stage, this time for twelve years. Most of the recordings heard on this disc were made in the few years just prior to this period of retirement.
Horowitz first recorded the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 by Chopin for HMV in London in June 1935 and March 1936. He had successfully performed the work in April 1935 at a concert in Carnegie Hall but during the period following this he was suffering from nervous exhaustion and tension, cancelling a concert in November 1935 but summoning the strength to perform with Bruno Walter in February 1936. After recording at least seventeen sides and only approving one for release the project was abandoned and only the first movement was issued in 1991.
Between 10th and 17th May 1950 Horowitz had four recording sessions for RCA at Town Hall, New York. He recorded the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 on 13th May 1950 completing the whole work in one three-hour session. The tempo Horowitz chooses for the first movement is surprisingly slow and not frenetic. In doing so, the tempo relationship between the first and second subject is far more logical than many performances where the second subject is often played much slower than the first.
RCA had used different locations in New York as recording venues for Horowitz such as Hunter College and Manhattan Center since the mid-1940s and they also began to record Horowitz’s live performances in Carnegie Hall (something he had done privately during the 1940s). The recording of the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, heard here comes from a recital he gave in that hall on 23rd April 1951 which also included a Haydn Sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The sound quality is acceptable for a live recording, but it is noticeable by the change in sound quality that RCA had him record the last bar again, almost certainly as audience applause would have intruded on the original recording. A week later Horowitz was at Hunter College Auditorium for two days of sessions from which come Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, and the Etude in E major from Op. 10. Although these two recordings come from the same session, the difference in sound quality is noticeable – the Etude has a warm singing tone, the Scherzo the brittle sound with a hard-edged treble familiar on many Horowitz recordings. Of the Etude one critic wrote at the time, ‘In the hands of Horowitz, even the E major Etude takes on a fresh lease of life, and urges us to reconsider and evaluate anew the overplayed and misunderstood encore.’
There is some confusion over the recording of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52. According to the RCA session sheets Horowitz recorded this on 28th December 1949 at Town Hall, New York. These matrices apparently only appeared as a 78rpm disc in the UK as HMV DB 21503; this disc does not appear, however, in the HMV catalogues until 1953. According to the discography by Robert McAlear in Glenn Plaskin’s biography of Horowitz, ‘Horowitz never approved the release of this, his first recording of the Ballade, to the public. It was issued by HMV erroneously and has not been subsequently reissued in any form.’ It appears here as a bonus track. Horowitz recorded this Ballade again on 8th May 1952 at Manhattan Center, the only work to come from what appears to be the only session he made at this location. A year later Horowitz went into one of his retirement periods; even his recordings were made at his home during the mid-1950s. RCA managed to entice him into an empty Carnegie Hall to record some Chopin during the first two months of 1957 from which the Barcarolle, Op. 60 comes, and his last sessions for the company before switching to Columbia were made at the same location two years later.
Horowitz was never considered a ‘Chopin player’ in the way that Alfred Cortot, Arthur Rubinstein or Witold Malcuzynski were and it is interesting to note that these recordings were the first he made of all of these compositions by Chopin. His extremes of dynamics and tempi have divided the critics over the years. As one wrote in 1958 of a disc containing the Barcarolle heard here, ‘One may not enjoy Horowitz’s concept of Chopin: if so, there is little that I can say. But if your choice in Chopin interpretation runs to large-scale, grandiose treatments, magnificent panoramas of sound, delicacy and yet tremendous virility, obtain this record by all means. The overall effect is breathtaking.’
© 2008 Jonathan Summers
All of the selections on the present disc were transferred from American vinyl LP pressings except for the final track, which came from a British shellac 78 rpm disc. This recording was only issued in Europe, and was withdrawn at Horowitz’s request almost immediately upon release, making it one of the rarest of all of the pianist’s commercial issues. It has never previously been reissued, not even on RCA’s “Horowitz Collection” CDs. The sound (a tape dubbing, pressed on noisy shellac) is not of the same calibre as the rest of the programme, but it is presented for its rarity and in conjunction with the artist’s approved 1952 remake of the same work.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 “Funeral March” Recorded 13th May 1950, Town Hall First issued RCA Victor LM-1113
Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60 Recorded 23rd February 1957, Carnegie Hall First issued RCA Victor LM-2137
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 Recorded 8th May 1952, Manhattan Center First issued RCA Victor LM-1707
Polonaise No. 7 in A flat major, Op. 61 “Polonaise-fantaisie” Recorded live 23rd April 1951, Carnegie Hall First issued RCA Victor LM-1957
Etude No. 3 in E major, Op. 10, No. 3 Recorded 29th April 1951, Hunter College Auditorium First issued RCA Victor LM-1707
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 Recorded 28th-29th April 1951, Hunter College Auditorium First issued RCA Victor LM-1707
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (withdrawn 1949 recording) Recorded 28th December 1949, Town Hall First issued HMV DB 21503 Matrices: D9-RC-2143-1E and 2144-1F
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CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 / Ballade No. 4 / Polon...