Back to the Future

Horowitz at Carnegie Hall 1986, a review by Rolf-Peter Wille

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

(Horowitz at Carnegie Hall)

by Rolf-Peter Wille, February 1986

You are a pianist (or trying to believe you are). Suppose you know a certain crazy professor who offers you a ride on his newly-invented time machine, back to the year 1925 (AD of course!): You have the chance to hear a legendary pianist in recital and be a witness to the grand style of a past era. How much would you pay for such an experience? A million? Ten million?

Wrong! You can have it for $25 at Carnegie Hall. Suppose you have loyal friends willing to fight freezing temperatures for at least seven hours and manage to survive (assuming that you are clever enough not to stand in line yourself). Here is a more or less scientific report about this journey to the past which began on

Friday, November 15, 1985.

"Horowitz At Carnegie Hall"…again? And just a movie? I thought I had more important things to do (like watching other movies). But, dragged by a friend, I went reluctantly. Vladimir Horowitz likes to admit that his playing combines God and the devil: "Zey are both in me!" Unfortunately though, his latest recitals in London and Tokyo were at best a musical purgatory and did not give reason for high expectations. But word has it that he (or perhaps He) was overmedicated…

The movie - surprise! After They (God and Devil) made the usual little jokes ("Nobody will remember me"), Their playing sounded very much as if They had found each other again and created new life. The Bach – Busoni Chorale in G minor showed compelling authority from the first note. Busoni’s playing has been described as "like a flame of marble," and Horowitz, who looked like a Gothic pillar, reminded me of that. His controlled energy has the deceptive calm of a tiger ready to jump. A controlled tension can be exciting, while the relaxed nervousness of everyday people can be distracting. Like Rachmaninoff, Horowitz’s frozen face, his constantly raised eyebrows, and his stiff posture never yield to any emotion. He is concentration, Likewise the beautiful singing tone in the Bach-Busoni chorale revealed an intense simplicity.

Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 330, was really sparkling, neither pedantic nor cute but very much alive. Some of the most remarkable Mozart I have heard! Moszkowski’s Etude in F major was brilliant (of course), the Chopin Polonaise (guess which one) molto con fuoco (of course), and Mme Horowitz’s comments were wry (of course): "For an historic event, do what you must" - referring to the mess that the film crew had made out of the Horowitzes’ Upper East Side apartment. The little fight between Maestro and Madame over "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (she didn’t allow him to play it) was funny and seemed natural. (Someone should make a television sitcom out of it!)

Second surprise: This film, in which Horowitz sounded very much like Horowitz, was made in April, 1985 (yes, AD!). What I did not suspect during that time was that this film was clever publicity for Horowitz’s return to Carnegie Hall on December 15. And it succeeded - I Became curious enough to be willing to spend money for a ticket.

Following is the report of Dennis Malone, pianist, friend, and survivor of the "Horowitz Queue."

Sunday, November 24.

9:30 p.m.

After leaving a concert in Carnegie Recital Hall, I [Dennis Malone] see the first brave souls queuing up to spend the night outside in the 20 cold. Since I have to work the next day, I spare myself the cold night’s wait.

Monday, November 25.

9:30 a.m.

The line for tickets stretches from 57th Street at Seventh Avenue all the way to Sixth Avenue. This is one of New York’s longest city blocks. The day promises to be cold.

11:00 a.m.

The box office opens. The line will move very slowly because there are only two ticket-sellers and each charge order must be confirmed.

1 :00 p.m.

As the line inches forward, new hopefuls arrive.

3 :00 p.m.

After work, I hurry to Carnegie Hall. Do I have any kind of chance? When I arrive the line stretches only halfway down the block I ask the people at the front of the line when they arrived. They answer, red-nosed and shivering "9:00a.m." A colleague from school spots me and says he heard the tickets are going fast. Fortunately, each person can buy no more than four tickets, so the scalpers cannot ruin this one.

3 :30 p. m.

I’m still the last in line. No one else wants to try. Am I crazy for doing this? Wait, some older ladies join me, and I feel a bit less ridiculous.

4 :00 p.m.

It’s certainly cold, especially when you stand still for a long time. Doesn’t this line ever move?

5 :00 p.m.

The line moves. I am mow in front of the Russian Tea Room. A beautiful woman in an expensive fur leaves the restaurant and smiles at us. I sneeze gracelessly. What am I doing here?

5 :15 p.m.

Disaster strikes. A misinformed policeman, trying to clear the way in front of the Russian Tea Room, orders us to move up the line, forming a queue next to people who have been there for hours. They are suspicious, then furious, then scornful. As I inquire to other officials about what is going on, a man starts to yell at me. He is fat and balding with a high-pitched voice and a plaid sports-coat: "Why are you so stupid? Can’t you just use common sense? Do you know you’ve just lost your place in line?" This is the stereotypical New Yorker, rude and abrasive. He is not really interested in an answer, so I leave him.

The other relocated people and I return to the line proper. Fortunately we don’t lose our places. An Hungarian student ahead of me offers to buy some coffee. The prospect of a hot drink immediately cheers me up. The older lady behind me offers a lemon drop from her purse, and the Hungarian student refuses to take any money for the coffee. My faith in human nature regains some strength.

6 :00 p.m.

Finally some warmth. About fifteen of us are let inside the Hall lobby, where we wait in a caged-in room behind the box office area. As soon as the line in front of the box office thins out, we take our places in the last line.

Panic hits as ticket-sellers call out, "no more $15 seats." Seconds later: "No more $25 or $50 seats." My adrenaline shifts into overdrive while the "William Tell Overture" goes through my head. "Only $75 seats left." Faces drop, and the line immediately clears out. I’m next. "Only two tickets left." A guard briskly ushers me to the ticket window… "Two, please," I gulp, fishing out the entire contents of my wallet. Will my ever-so-practical landlady understand? Undoubtedly not, but my shacking hands push the money under the window and the clerk screams, "Hooray, all sold out! No more tickets!"

(Thank you again, Dennis, for surviving the queue.)

Sunday, December 15.

2 :00 p.m.

I [Rolf-Peter Wille] emerge from hell (also known as the IRT) and notice that the day is sunny and cold. In front of the time machine I meet a friend. A few scalpers approach us and try to sell tickets for $200 each. I consider buying one to sell at 3:00 p.m. for $300. Then I remember that I don’t have $200.

2 :15 p. m.

The first disaster: The Chinese Tea Room is closed on Sundays. We go to a cheap Cuban-Chinese place instead.

3 :50 p.m.

We enter the time machine (together with 3000 ignorant souls who think they are in Carnegie Hall).

4 :13 p.m.

After the countdown is slightly delayed we arrive mistakenly in


The captain of the time machine shuffles on stage. His smiles and generous hand-waving encourage the crew. Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor: The enormous presence of the pianissississimo convinces me that I have indeed arrived in the 1920s, though the E major Sonata shows that the captain has not yet overcome the strain of this journey.

The machine is adjusted and we arrive in


Schumann "Kreisleriana": After an inglorious start, the pianist (who is Vladimir de Pachmann in disguise) presents one of the most eccentric and droll of Johannes Kreislers, a Kreisler who must have been a druggie. I once complained about José Feghali’s Schumann as not being crazy enough. This one is really crazy! There are many lovely details and funny surprises. Yes, the music is "wonderfully complex and intertwined" (Schumann) but not "simple withal." Some of the voice-leading comes close to tastelessness (imagine the Mona Lisa using lipstick to emphasize her smile…). Pianists like Cherkassky have proven that "Kreisleriana" can be colorful without such distortions.

The machine is adjusted again, and we finally arrive in


Scriabin, Etude Opus 2, No. 1: The captain is now totally recovered. The melancholic sadness of this melody projects beautifully. The opening of Opus 8, No. 12 is really "patetico" (and not "furioso"). The climax towards the end convinces the listener, though Horowitz seems to have an edition that simplifies the left hand.

Here are some observations that might serve as consolation to lesser performers: Even at a Horowitz recital there are latecomers. Even at a Horowitz recital people cough, sneeze and slam doors during slow movements. Even at Horowitz recitals the program is printed incorrectly (wrong opus numbers and keys for the Scriabin etudes).

The second half of the recital is a real treat. After a charming Schubert Impromptu he "modulates" to Liszt via a Schubert-Liszt paraphrase as "pivot chord" (thank you, MSM theory department). This is clever program-making. The effortless elegance, the enchanting pulse, the dazzling independence of the hands in this Valse-Caprice from "Soirees de Vienne" bewitch the audience. I am surprised that Horowitz rarely thunders. He dares to play the Chopin Polonaise in A flat major pianissimo throughout the first two or three pages, so that when the theme returns, his "mezzo-fortissimo" sounds like triple forte. He does the same in the left-hand octaves.

We see that Horowitz’s genius does not lie in the use of blatant virtuoso effects. His very personal imagination and exquisite sensitivity perfectly match the music when he is "on" And he certainly is "on" today!

6 :00 p.m.

The audience is electrified, the encores brilliant, and the slam of the piano lid definitive.

6 :15 p.m.

I do something really crazy. I jump into my time machine and rush back to the future in the form of a young debutante’s piano recital at Carnegie Recital Hall [now Weill Recital Hall]. I am in time for the second half.

1985, Sunday, December 15.

6 :20 p.m.

No person in 1925 had this chance: I am going to experience the future. So… what is it like, the piano style of the 1980s?

Well - to tell you the truth - I forgot…

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