Friday, January 20, 2012

Tchaikovsky, Horowitz and a Race to the Finish...

On January12, 1953, a unique example of the Unexpected took place:
On this day, the omnipresent Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto was performed live and recorded by the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, with the acclaimed conductor George Szell and the New York Philharmonic.
The personal history formed between Horowitz and this Concerto had long been in place, beginning in 1928 when a young Horowitz performed it at his American debut. The ensuing recordings with his father-in-law Arturo Toscanini firmly established Horowitz as the Lion of the piano by way of his sensational readings of this piece, and it was pretty much accepted that the Russian virtuoso had reached the outer limits of what might be termed 'controlled frenzy' in these recordings.
That is, until Horowitz and Szell collaborated in the 1953 performance. It became increasingly clear to the audience that as the performance went on Horowitz was reaching an unprecedented level of protracted and unremitting excitement, and by the time the third movement was underway, the audience was held breathless as it experienced a level of textual power that obviously was recognized by Horowitz himself. As the final measures were being played, Horowitz was transported so completely by his own kinetic quotient that he increased the speed, leaving Szell and the orchestra behind by perhaps a fraction of a beat, resulting in the pianist finishing first, with the orchestra a fraction of a second behind.
The audience was dazed and bewildered sufficiently to express its applause in a kind of 'what happened' mode, rather than the usual tumultuous, football game-like pounding of the floor accompanied by bravos that was the hallmark invariably produced after a Horowitz performance.
I can only imagine how upset Horowitz must have been, as this incarnation of the Tchaikovsky is, for me, the best of the vaunted recordings done by Horowitz.
Actually, and rather strangely, my reaction to this accident in the final seconds of the performance is that the manner in which the piece ended served to actually enhance the historic level that the pianist reached.
Interestingly, the reviews I have found about this performance do not mention the final loss of connection between pianist and orchestra.
Perhaps one should consider this a strangely flawed and immortal moment in history, and no more.

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