Top Ear

From Horowitz’s Carmen Fantasie

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Leonard Ip writes

Tailored to showcase the pianist’s tremendous virtuosity and pianistic ingenuity, the 1968 Carmen Fantasie remains one of my all-time favourite piano performances (the concert was recorded by RCA). The staggering variety of pianistic effects never ceases to amaze me: the accents on rhythms, the colour of the tone, staccatos and sforzandos, legato and non-legato, cross-hand, inner voices, multiple lines, leaps and interlocking octaves, and most of all the incredible manipulation of musical tension…… In retrospection, I didn’t understand Horowitz’s pianism as thoroughly as I do now when I first came to know him; but I was and am still stunned by his unique music-making.

Some people like to refer the master of expression as “the master of exaggeration and distortion”. In my very humble opinion, they who think Horowitz as nothing more but a noisy virtuoso have perhaps missed a small part of their musical lives (if they ever have one). In 2010 (if I remember correctly), the first book on Horowitz written entirely by a Hong Kong author (a non-music scholar) was published and Horowitz aficionados were thrilled. The analysis and appreciation of the pianist’s art, as I recall, is clear and elucidating but it was downright disheartening to see some of Horowitz’s 1980s recordings labelled as “unnatural” and “mannered”. Yang-Zhao, a Taiwanese writer (of usually insightful essays), similarly dismissed Horowitz’s 1986 performance of Mozart’s K. 330 sonata as “distorted” and “a failure”.

The problem, as I see it, is quite simple and ‘close-mindedness’ should be the aptest phrase to describe it. Is it so difficult to appreciate a piece of entertainment, so brilliantly wrought by Horowitz’s music-making acumen? Barenboim’s comment on Horowitz’s playing is nothing short of a revelation: “At the extreme was the art of Horowitz playing the piano: you had the feeling that certain notes in the chord were literally in front of your face and others were miles away.” This is the extraordinary craftsmanship of Horowitz: the magic of spacing, the control of sound, and above all the almost neurotic involvement in the production of sound. It was not only in his later years Horowitz made music with greater subtlety than most people would perceive.

That brings us to questions naysayers repeat decades after decades. What is the point of all this? What truly is the point of such pianistic feat? We all know that it was never Horowitz alone who was thus accused. More people, in their psuedo-sobre postures, would probably mention Cziffra’s name with a disdainful snort.

I can’t help but feeling sorry for them.

We can call it a matter of values. What Horowitz achieves in playing transcription is, simply put, bringing listeners (music-makers alike) the tremendous fun that can only be wrought by his incomparable pianism. I do not deny the complexity and depth of a work like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, but wasn’t Beethoven also having fun seeing how many things he could spin out of this silly little waltz? Of course, there are times we resort to works of, say, Wagner or Tchaikovsky: composers who hardly, as a matter of fact, intend to make fun out of music. But it wouldn’t hurt listening to composers as diverse as Antheil and Thalberg, would it? I always find Shostakovich a perfect example for the dual nature of music: what better contrast can we find than in his Second Jazz Suite and Eighth String Quartet? We can’t have Shostakovich’s symphonies alone because that’s just not all of his personality. It’s the unifying spirit that matters.

To make fun with music is the same thing to be passionate about music. Tastes, of course, often varies: Glenn Gould and Pogorelich were obviously having fun in their outlandish playing; Hamelin’s serious humour draws mixed responses; while Horowitz, as “The Last Romantic”, was doing transcriptions just for fun like Rachmaninov, Godowsky and Rosenthal. No one can deny these musicians’ love and devotion to their performances and interpretations. It never fails to overwhelm me with thankfulness seeing Horowitz, the pianist who suffered from his nerves throughout his life, to enjoy himself so much while sharing his love of piano playing with us listeners.


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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