A Centennial Debate Over Piano Titans

© New York Times
Published: October 5, 2003

IT'S hard to convey the incredulous excitement stirred in the classical music world when an announcement came, in the spring of 1965, that Vladimir Horowitz would emerge from a self-imposed, 12-year retirement and play a recital at Carnegie Hall. For a new generation of concertgoers, especially fledgling pianists like me, Horowitz was a legend from a bygone era of Russian Romantic virtuosity. That I would someday actually hear him perform was almost as much a fantasy as someday hearing the Beatles.

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Rudolf Serkin in 1957: A centenary shared with his opposite, Horowitz.

Naturally, I owned several of his landmark recordings, like the amazing live performance of Tchaikovsky's First Concerto with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony from 1941, played with white-hot energy, unbelievably delicate passagework in the dancing middle section of the Andantino and, in the finale, hellbent tempos, whiplash accents and eerily clear articulation. Another album came with pictures of Horowitz as a frail, shaggy-haired adolescent from Ukraine on his first concert tours, in the early 1920's, when he conquered Russia with his blazing technique and charisma.

But that was ancient history. True, in recent years Horowitz had returned to the recording studio. Now a return to the concert stage? He was too insecure and neurotic. And surely too old.

In fact, he was only 61, months younger than Rudolf Serkin, my true idol and Horowitz's opposite in so many ways, an artist of unassailable integrity then in his prime. Bald, bespectacled and professorial, Serkin was a famously hard worker and a fixture of the concert scene. Just that season I had heard him play twice at Carnegie Hall: a typically substantive recital program and an Apollonian account of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Alongside Serkin's distinguished artistry, Horowitz's hair-raising recordings were a guilty pleasure.

This is the centennial year of both Serkin (born March 28) and Horowitz (Oct. 1). For most of Horowitz's career, his birth year was incorrectly said to be 1904. When he left the Soviet Union in 1925, warily crossing the border en route to Berlin with forbidden cash hidden in his shoes, he carried a passport that had been doctored by his father to help him avoid military service.

The joint anniversary has been acknowledged with recordings, including "Horowitz Rediscovered," a 1975 recital from Carnegie Hall (RCA Victor), and "The Magic of Horowitz," a compilation of studio recordings from the mid-80's (Deutsche Grammophon), and a book, "Serkin: A Life," a valuable biography by Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber (Oxford University Press).

It may surprise their admirers to know that despite their notable differences, Horowitz and Serkin (who died in 1989 and 1991, respectively) both originally intended to be composers as well as pianists. Early on, for different reasons, they gave up the idea and, with it, any notable involvement with contemporary music. In retrospect, Horowitz and Serkin can be seen as influential figures in an early 20th-century trend that created a divide between performers and composers.

That Horowitz did not stick with composition is perplexing, since he had an uncanny ear for contemporary harmony. When just 13, he stunned his teacher at the Kiev Conservatory by recreating from memory whole stretches of Strauss's "Salome." The structural rigors of Beethoven baffled him. But he was excited by the recent music of Arensky, Glazunov, Szymanowski and, his hero, Rachmaninoff. Soon he was spending as much time jotting down his improvisations as practicing his assigned pieces.

Later he would blame the Russian revolution for his decision to give up composition. With his family robbed of its assets, he was forced to earn money as a performer. But to his credit, at least in the early decades of his career, he championed important works by composers of his time. He introduced Prokofiev's tumultuous Piano Sonatas No. 6, 7 and 8 to American audiences. Listen to his steely, volatile and terrifying 1945 recording of the Seventh Sonata, and you can imagine the impact his performances must have had on audiences who did not know what to expect.

The story of Serkin's uneasy relationship to contemporary music is harder to fathom. His father, a Russian Jew, moved the family from its home in Bohemia to Vienna so that the gifted Rudolf could have a fine musical education. There, at 15, he fell under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg. For two years, as a tireless member of Schoenberg's contemporary-music ensemble, he played almost nothing but new and recent works. During this period he took up composing seriously.

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