About this Recording
8.110671 - BRAHMS / TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concertos (Horowitz) (1940-1941)

Great Pianists • Horowitz (1904-1989)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 • Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1Purely from a marketing aspect, these early 1940s recordings of concertos by Tchaikovsky and Brahms offered dream tickets. They were recorded in the earlier days of Toscanini’s conductorship of the NBC Symphony, the orchestra specially created to lure him back to the United States after his resignation from the New York Philharmonic in 1936. A wave of artistic renewal through radio sponsorship of the orchestra and pre-Pearl Harbour American confidence on recovering full economic growth and prosperity allowed RCA Victor to proclaim the matching of ‘The World’s Greatest’ conductor and pianist with full might and resonance.

Even before the more anonymous accolade of Maestro was bestowed upon him by the publicity moguls, Toscanini was one of the few conductors referred to purely by surname, and RCA lost no time in also allying him with Heifetz and Horowitz as world-beating soloists in the same bracket. The great Russian-born pianist had also been a member of the Toscanini family since 1933, when he married the conductor’s daughter Wanda. Unlike his compatriot violin virtuoso, however, who had no such connection, perhaps through a combination of dutiful compliance to his wife and Toscanini’s renowned indomitable will, Horowitz always remained far more in awe of his father-in-law, at least when in his company, both socially and musically. Referring to the Brahms concerto recording, he famously remarked at a later time, "Toscanini had his own conception, and I followed it, even if it was sometimes against my own wishes."

For whatever reason, an intrinsic unease courses through the three known recordings of Horowitz playing the Brahms concerto, all with Toscanini. Both an earlier 1939 Lucerne performance and a subsequent NBC reading from 1948 register a degree of temperamental mismatch both with the conductor and even the work itself. Virtuosity is predictably dazzling. Horowitz despatches some of the teasingly offhand passages where Brahms presents the soloist with almost impossible demands with breathtaking dexterity and clarity, but this very facility lies counter to the struggle that remains the essence of the first two movements, particularly as realised in Toscanini’s athletic and organically symphonic conception. In many ways, Horowitz’s unusually positive and forthright first entry sounds the tenor for much of what follows, and the prevailing impression remains brusque, with the soloist oddly detached and reluctant to engage in true dialogue with the orchestra. An added spontaneity and a more lyrical flexibility undeniably emerge in the slow movement’s central ruminations and the deliciously playful stance of the finale, but the dancing agility and muscular vitality of the much under-valued French pianist, Robert Casadesus, sparking off Toscanini in an earlier 1930s performance, instantly reveal the component missing from the family conundrum.

More prime evidence leaps to the fore when moving directly from Brahms to Tchaikovsky. A more striking contrast would be hard to find. The adrenaline and sheer flair of the introduction to the B flat minor Concerto immediately announce a meeting of minds barely hinted at in the Brahms. The colour, variety and articulation of Horowitz’s double octave chords are an education in themselves, each sequence of three to a bar subtly variegated and cumulatively weighted to secure maximum drama, tension and balance within the most epic statement of the orchestra’s once only melodic exposition.

Of course, Horowitz is pertinently more on home ground with Tchaikovsky. Born only eleven years after the composer’s death and with the work firmly in his repertoire from his teens, the direct contact borne of immediate post-generation Russian technical schooling and performance tradition specific to the work makes for something special. He represents an ideal soul-mate for Tchaikovsky’s more overtly theatrical and extrovert language, dynamically complemented by Toscanini’s high-octane sweep. The bounds of physical speed and emotional intensity are consistently pushed to fever pitch, with conductor and soloist goading each other to the limits. The virtuoso aspects of the keyboard writing bristle with animal energy and balletic deftness, compellingly underscoring a vital component in the work’s complexion. An extended dynamic range, interpretative fantasy and imagination, together with elemental propulsion bear witness to the pianist spurred at full stretch with a surety of purpose rarely heard in this rashly abused war-horse.

If anything, even more dare-devil hyper-charged pyrotechnics can be heard in the famous War Bond Concert live performance given by the same artists in New York on Easter Sunday in 1943, the broadcast of which was not released commercially by RCA until 1959. It is salutary, however, to listen to a live 1948 recording with the New York Philharmonic under Bruno Walter, in which Horowitz offers a more freely capricious and conspicuously less driven view of the work. What remains consistent in any of his performances of this concerto is a refreshing ability to avoid the hackneyed, jaded over-kill that can all too readily set in with over-familiarity or a mere desire to impress. He constantly challenges with an insight that goes unerringly to the very heart of the work.

Despite the undeniable splendours of these two celebrated recordings, it remains intriguing to consider Horowitz’s career from a broader perspective. For the greater part of his professional career, concerto repertoire for public consumption was slender, with only the Beethoven Emperor, Brahms First, Mozart A major K.488, and Rachmaninov Third Concertos to supplement what we have here. This may manifest an intrinsic discomfiture with the medium itself. No pianist of the twentieth century can lay claim to a more highly developed palette of colour and tonal variety resourced by seemingly limitless reserves of powerhouse virtuosity. Paradoxically, Horowitz was already in effect a one-man keyboard orchestra (the essence of the success of his Scarlatti interpretations as much as those of Scriabin), which possibly fuelled a clash of interests and an awareness of combined efforts potentially gilding the lily.

Ian Julier

Producer’s Note

The two recordings featured on this disc were among the biggest sellers in the Victor catalogue during the 1940s and have remained available in one form or another since the day they were first issued. However, the original 78 rpm discs were plagued with a number of flaws.

For one thing, the recordings lack bass, with the piano tone in particular sounding shallow and tinny. (I have tried to bring out the bass as much as possible in these transfers, short of making the overall sound boomy.) Secondly, the mastering of the original metal parts was faulty for several of the sides, leading to swish, inherent noise and, particularly in the Tchaikovsky, a general fuzziness and lack of focus. Moreover, the shellac on which the records were pressed was not the finer grade used by Victor during the latter half of the 1930s, owing to wartime importation restrictions.

Finally, the Tchaikovsky was originally issued with two dubbed sides (Sides 6 and 8, the second halves of the second and third movements). The originally-issued version of Side 6, Take 11R, was a particularly inept dubbing begun when the cutting turntable had not yet come up to speed, and contained a good deal of pitch instability. This take was replaced on postwar copies by another which sounds like an undubbed take, although the take number is not visible on the pressings. The final side remained a dubbing on postwar versions, one with a sound quality quite different from the rest of the set. In addition, postwar issues feature a different Side 5 (the first half of the second movement) free of the automobile-horn accompaniment to the opening flute solo heard on the originally-issued take.

For these transfers, I have chosen the best sides from eight copies of the Brahms (prewar, wartime and early postwar pressings). Although I had five copies of the Tchaikovsky to draw upon, all of the sides used here came from a single, mint-condition postwar pressing.

Mark Obert-Thorn


April 2002

Vladimir Horowitz held a singular place in twentieth-century music. He was both an international celebrity and serious artist whose performances and recordings were anxiously anticipated and widely discussed. His recordings of Brahms's Second Concerto (1940) and Tchaikovsky's First Concerto (1941) are among the most influential piano recordings ever produced and they helped to propel his career into the 1940s and beyond.

In 1940 the thirty-seven-year-old Horowitz was rebuilding his career in the United States. He had led a charmed life up until only four years earlier. He had been a professional musician since 1922, when he completed his studies at the Kiev Conservatory. In 1924, the twenty-one-year-old pianist performed throughout Western Europe, where the critics hailed him as the greatest pianist of his generation. In 1928 he gave a concert tour of the United States, making his American debut on January 12th with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. He began his association with Arturo Toscanini in 1932, performing Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, and in December 1933 marrying Toscanini's daughter, Wanda. His hectic schedule, however, began to take its toll. Suffering from mental exhaustion and a variety of physical ailments, in 1936 he stopped performing and remained out of sight for so long that reports of his death began to circulate. He made a gradual return to the concert stage in 1938, first in Switzerland, and then elsewhere in Europe. Finally, in 1939, he emigrated to the United States, making his first appearance with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in May 1940, performing and then recording Brahms's B flat Piano Concerto.

When he completed his Second Piano Concerto, in the summer of 1881, Brahms mockingly referred to the sprawling work as 'a tiny, tiny piano concerto, with a tiny wisp of a scherzo.' It's four-movement structure has caused some critics to refer to the B-flat Concerto as a 'symphony with piano obbligato'. By the 1930s it was firmly established in the concerto repertoire. Horowitz had known it for quite some time. He had heard Artur Schnabel perform it with Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in the mid 1920s and soon thereafter added the work to his own repertoire. Its daunting passages of double octaves were already legendary and Horowitz was fond of telling the story of practising them at an upright piano in a Dortmund brothel prior to a concert in that German city.

Horowitz's May 6, 1940 performance of the B-Flat Concerto in New York was a sensation. The event was an all-Brahms charity concert at Carnegie Hall with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. New York Times' critic Olin Downes wrote that "Mr. Horowitz played what is probably the greatest of piano concertos with all the sincerity, the virility and fire of his young heart, and the abundant virtuosity and power which are phenomenally at his command, and...one ventures to say that this was playing of a breadth, a masculinity, a poetry and withal a heroic spirit which would have satisfied the composer." Downes reported the audience to have applauded each movement and cheered at the end. On May 9 he recorded the concerto at the RCA Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey.

Soon after making the recording, Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra began a tour of 'goodwill' tour of South American. Horowitz, however, was sidelined through much of this time after catching his finger in a door. He was forced to cancel his engagements and spend many weeks recovering close to his doctor in Chicago. Meanwhile, the Brahms recording hit the shops and was an enormous commercial and critical success. RCA Victor executives were thus anxious to follow up the Brahms with Horowitz's showpiece, Tchaikovsky's First Concerto.

In 1941 Americans had long been familiar with Tchaikovsky's First Concerto, and with Horowitz's interpretation of it. Hans von Bulow gave the first performance on 25 October 1875, not in Europe but in Boston's Music Hall, with a free-lance orchestra conducted by B.J. Lang. Adele aus der Hohe played the concerto at the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891, conducted by the composer himself. Horowitz had made the concerto a central part of his repertoire early in his career. He performed it at his American debut, in January 1928, and featured it throughout the tour that followed. On 19 April 1941 Horowitz played the concerto with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra at an all-Tchaikovsky concert at Carnegie Hall, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the famous auditorium. Noel Straus, writing in the New York Times, called Horowitz's playing "brilliant, poetic and vital...a truly stupendous exhibition of pianism, as emotionally expansive as it was amazing in its tonal hues and subtlety of nuance." Once again, the studio recording took place a few days later and, as with the Brahms, the Horowitz-Toscanini version quickly became the one to own.

These recordings had serious competition at mid-century. Many considered Schnabel's recording of the Brahms the definitive version while others favoured Arthur Rubinstein's 1932 recording-and his 1929 release of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto. Still, Horowitz's versions won the most converts. Young pianists listened with wonder at the power and expression and the recordings remained the benchmarks for these concertos. The American pianist, Seymour Bernstein, writes that at the age of fifteen his passion for music was "derived from two recordings I owned, the Concerto in B-flat minor by Tchaikowsky and the Concerto in B-flat by Brahms, both played by Horowitz and conducted by Toscanini. To me, those old 78-rpms were like living things. Thus I tenderly lifted them out of their albums, being careful not to scratch them, or-the worst of horrors-to break them. For that would have been tantamount to injuring Horowitz himself. And, finally, when I positioned the discs on the turntable of our old Magnavox console and subsequently listened to those demoniacal phrases and thundering chords and octaves emanating from the mono speaker, goose flesh broke out over my entire body, and my hair stood straight up on end. Awestruck though I was, that sound kindled a fire within me: 'I can play like that,' I thought. 'I only need more time to work things out.'"

Brian Thompson

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