What I Learned From Horowitz

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today I’m going to share with you a personal story about the things I’ve learned from Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz was a phenomenal pianist and a phenomenon of the 20th century. I remember he used to make comebacks. He would retreat from the concert stage for years and people wondered if he would ever come back. Every time he reemerged it was an exciting event, and his playing was spellbinding!

I had the good fortune of studying with Constance Keene at the Manhattan School of Music. She was good friends with both Vladimir and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz. That’s right, his wife was the daughter of the great conductor Arturo Toscanini! She would visit with them all the time socially. I would hear all kinds of stories and I ended up getting tickets to his concerts! It was a tremendous learning experience for me. So I want to share some of the aspects of his playing that perhaps you can embrace and try to understand what he did that was so unique.

Horowitz gave the illusion of speed using articulation.

 

Aside from his poetic musicianship, Horowitz also had a technique that was mind bending. He would do things that sounded so impossibly hard. You listened to him play, and it sounded so fast. And yet, if you were to compare his performances to other performances of the same pieces, you would discover that indeed his tempos weren’t always faster. They just sounded faster. How is this possible? Horowitz had a way with his technique of creating delineation between notes. You hear each and every note so clearly in his playing. Instead of playing very smoothly, Horowitz punctuated each note. So, while it wasn’t necessarily faster, it gives the illusion of it being faster because of the articulation of all the notes. That’s one of the aspects of his technique. Listen to his performance of Chopin’s C-Sharp Minor Etude Opus 10 And you’ll hear what I’m talking about. The feeling it gives you is pretty spectacular.

Horowitz had a way of tone production and phrasing that no one to this day has been able to duplicate.

Most pianists will try to play a musical line as smoothly as possible. But there’s a property of the piano that when you play notes, they are immediately fading out. Horowitz used this to his advantage. Instead of trying to just force a smooth line, he would strategically listen to how one note would melt into the next and somehow carve out a line with all these angular tonal shadings. I would try to imitate this in my playing because it was such a compelling sound. Ordinarily, if other pianists tried to achieve this, it would have a very mannered approach. But somehow he could get a sense of a composition and create these little gems of beauty. Somehow he would put all these gems together and you’d have this magnificent line. There was a unique character to his musicianship that was unlike anybody else in that respect.

Most pianists have a nice balance from the bottom to the top, with the melody being heard above the other notes. It’s very lovely. It’s very smooth. But Horowitz had a way of bringing out inner lines you wouldn’t expect to be brought out, constantly calling your attention to inner lines that keep the performance interesting. Horowitz paid as much attention to inner lines and baselines as the upper melody, and didn’t just play a static homogeneous performance. With most performers, the soprano is the loudest, the bass is the second loudest, and the inner voices are softest. And that strata of musical lines is maintained throughout. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not saying that this is better or worse. It’s just different. That’s why when you listen to Horowitz, he doesn’t sound like anybody else! Listen to his G Minor Ballade of Chopin. He recorded it many times, including many live performances. I was fortunate to hear him perform this piece live on more than one occasion. He never played it the same twice, and they are all highly individual interpretations!

Seeing Horowitz live was a revelatory experience for me.

 

One of his many comebacks was in the 1970s. He was playing at the huge Metropolitan Opera House. Can you imagine a piano recital in a hall of that size? Because it was a comeback it was a big event. There were actually 100s of people camping out the night before. I was one of them! While waiting for the tickets to go on sale the following morning I met Horowitz! He came by at about three in the morning with Wanda and handed out donuts and coffee to the people in line. I thought that was really sweet. Finally, I got to the front of the line to purchase tickets, and they only allowed two tickets to each person! So, I got my two tickets and they were in the nosebleed section. It was about as far away as you could get! He was like a little ant on this huge stage. That hall is enormous. Typically not a hall for piano recitals because it’s so large. But it was a cataclysmically beautiful performance. Everything was very refined and smooth.

Just a couple of months after I had camped out to see him, my teacher Constance Keene, who was such good friends with the Horowitz’s said, “Horowitz is playing at Carnegie Hall. How many tickets would you like?” I couldn’t believe it! I got box seats as close as you could get in Carnegie hall! It was unbelievable! What was so fascinating is that I had just heard him in the back of a huge hall and everything sounded very refined and smooth. When I saw him up close, there was an angularity and a grotesque beauty of Horowitz, because things are kind of contorted to stretch a bit. And when you’re up close, you can hear this. For example, when you’re in a big hall and you have a rapid passage and a chord, you need a little space for the reverb of the hall to dissipate. When you’re far away, you don’t even notice any of these things, but up close, you can hear how everything is delineated. Everything is exaggerated. Even in much smaller concert halls, it’s absolutely essential to exaggerate dynamics and to take time in certain places, depending upon the acoustics of the hall. And Horowitz really understood this.

Seeing him up close after seeing him from so far away was enlightening. understanding how he was able to achieve a sound in a large hall where you felt like he was playing just for you. Even if you were way in the back of the balcony, everything came through so clearly. Up close, it was almost like getting close to a painting and seeing all the brush strokes. It was extremely angular and well-defined. I learned a great deal about how he approached the piano. Technically it’s a whole other area. He played the piano like no one else, sitting rather low. And a lot of times it looked almost like he used flat fingers. And his piano was unorthodox. He had it regulated with a very shallow action, very light with super hard hammers. So anytime he put down just a little bit of weight, it was a roar! The magic of his technique was being able to play so lightly that he could control this. So anytime he wanted power, all he had to do was let a little bit of weight down. Because of this, he didn’t have to sit at a height that most people do. Most pianists use the weight of the arms or even the body. If you only weigh 100 pounds you might have to use the weight of your body to get power at the piano.

Horowitz was a one of a kind pianist.

It’s interesting to try to incorporate some of the aspects of his playing, but it’s all but impossible. Horowitz made things work in a way that nobody else could imitate. He could do things that sounded so convincing. But then when you really analyzed it or tried to do it yourself, it would fall flat. How the heck could he do these crazy things and make it sound so perfect? It was the conviction of his playing that pulled it off. What he was doing was rather odd, but somehow the magic of the execution made it all work and made it so fascinating to listen to. I Hope you will listen to some Horowitz recordings to hear the magic for yourself!

Horowitz-Chopin etude op.10 no.4

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Horowitz (1951)

Horowitz at the White House:

Horowitz Plays Scarlatti:

Chopin G Minor Ballade – Horowitz:

Vladimir Horowitz plays Mozart: Concerto No. 23 in A major

These are some facets of what I learned from Vladimir Horowitz. I hope there’s something of value for you here! And I encourage you to go out and listen to some of his discography. I hope you’ve enjoyed this! Thanks again for joining me. I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.|

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6 thoughts on “What I Learned From Horowitz”

  1. Nice article, Robert. Thank you. Also, there was a small spell checker correction and i thought you might want to know about it: “baselines” should be “bass lines.”

    Of course, my spell checker never makes eros… lol

    Hope you’re well. My Yamaha G5 rebuild is still going strong. It’s like a new piano. Maybe better!

  2. Speaking of the way in which Horowitz articulated notes, I think of Anthony Newman. He plays organ pieces faster than anyone else, but he also articulates the notes. Instead of playing totally legato (holding down each note until he plays the next), he moves toward a faint staccato, which gives a vibrancy to his playing like no other. It is truly incredible to listen to, and on the organ, where a note only sounds when the key is pressed, it is even more dramatic than on the piano. So the result is that the apparent speed of his playing is almost impossible to imagine in a human being. I have tried this technique as well, and your fingers DO have to move faster than they would if you played legato, and it introduced the same vibrancy into my playing. But it takes a lot of energy and wears out my fingers!

  3. Many thanks for the detailed analysis of Horowitz’s singularities; and your observation on his playing Chopin ballade in G minor never the same way is pretty amazing!

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