Vladimir Horowitz

The artistry of Vladimir Horowitz, a prime influence on generations of pianists, was unrivalled, and for all the controversy his playing has entailed, few now dispute his unparallelled musical as well as technical mastery of the instrument. These pages document Alan Fraser’s very personal relationship to the master, whom he heard four times in concert (1975 Montreal, 1979 Toronto Massey Hall, 1981 & 1985 Boston) and met once (Toronto 1979)…

Horowitz Remembered

The first time I heard Horowitz I was in the second balcony of the Salle Wilfred Pelletier at Place des Arts in Montreal. That’s a long way from the stage. But at a certain point I closed my eyes and it was as if I could touch the sound, it was so tangible. I was in ecstasy the whole recital – Schumann Concerto without Orchestra during which, at one point he continued playing left hand passagework while placing his right hand on the piano bench and shifting his whole body weight slightly, to sit more comfortably. This left us gasping almost as much as what was coming out of the piano. I remember having a distinct sensation of a line of energy originating in his thought, moving down through his body and out through his arms, hands, fingertips, through the ivory and ebony, the mechanism, the strings and finally out of the piano case to us. I suppose this is always what’s happening when a pianist plays, but I have never felt it like that before or since. Instead, most of the time I sense interference of some sort from the performer’s consciousness, which unfortunately seems somehow shallower than what I experienced from Horowitz that afternoon.

Strange, the things that stick in one’s mind. He knocked the B flat above middle C out of tune in the Schumann, and I couldn’t believe that no tuner fixed it at intermission. But there it was, spoiling the 2nd theme of the G minor Ballade…

A heightened, nay, exalted awareness

After the recital I sat in my father’s car in a line of carbon monoxide emitting machines waiting to get out of the underground parking lot. What a shock to the system! From such beauty, such a rarified atmosphere to such sordid filth. It pointed out how much Horowitz’s awareness was heightened. Awareness can expand inwards as well as outwards – an increased awareness can lead me to discriminate between 10 shades of pianissimo or fortissimo. Horowitz raised us up to his exalted level of actual heightened physical-aural sensation for the short time we were privileged to share with him.

My teacher, Lauretta Altman-Milkman told me of the time Horowitz opened a Carnegie Hall recital with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G sharp minor, and the audience stood in ovation – after one piece! Laurie said that Horowitz channeled God when he played. The more the years pass I am inclined to agree with this seemingly extravagant claim and to see it as one essential part in any complete, practical and scientific description of what he was doing.

Listening to Horowitz in Massey Hall in Toronto, 1979

The second time was Toronto 1979. I was on stage, almost close enough to touch him. The Clementi with which he opened struck me in that in the repeats he shaped a thousand things exactly the same way, and yet it was anything but mechanical repetition. No, this was craftsmanship of the highest order. He had worked out an articulation of line, a specific inflection of phrase which he carefully went over in the repeat to see if there were any further hidden gems to be drawn out. He was careful, studied, controlled, and I had a sense of his own problem with nerves and his wise way of handling it.

Later in the Chopin A minor waltz I could see his hands shaking! “My god, he is nervous!” I thought to myself. Later still, in the Mendelssohn Scherzo Capriccioso, during a series of capricious leaps in both hands from the center to the extremes of the keyboard, he paused for a split second – I could see that his clicker had lost its focus ever so slightly – his eagle talon hands hovered in the air for a precarious instant, and then he was off again. I certainly can’t hear that one on the bootleg tape a friend gave me. But for that moment my heart was in my mouth, believe me!

These were all moments of revelation in that they revealed to me the human workings of a seemingly superhuman phenomenon.

By the way, in that A minor waltz I could perceive for the first time what Chopin really meant by “the left hand keeps time while the right hand is free.” His left hand wasn’t metronomic by any means but it was closer to the beat than the right, which created a marvellous alchemy between them.

He ended the program with ‘his’ Rachmaninoff Sonata in B flat minor. It was my first hearing of the work, and I remember thinking, “Boy, that’s my music but I’ll never have the technique to play it!”

Unique use of the pedal

I watched his pedaling and noticed that he used the left pedal for all cantilena passages, bar none. He had the piano voiced so bright that the only way to get singing tone was to use the left pedal. What freedom this gave him! What a sense of him playing the whole room, not just the instrument! His right foot did not pedal as most of ours do. He did not place his foot directly on the right pedal but off to the side a bit. He rested the ball of his big toe on the pedal while the outside edge rested on the floor. Instead of an up-down motion of his foot he would tilt his foot to the right to let the pedal up, then bring it back down again to depress the pedal. The complete outside edge of his foot never left the floor!

His physical organization was supreme…

I was reminded of the T’ai Chi masters who could reportedly send an opponent flying by barely moving their little finger. How was it possible for such explosions of sound to come rocketing out of the piano, but there’s virtually no movement! In any case, those who felt he was stiff were dead wrong. Physically he was loose as a goose, but the extreme economy of his movements led to the illusion of stiffness.

Years later one of my Feldenkrais trainers, Jeff Haller was watching the Moscow recital with me and said, “Look, he walks and moves his head just like Moshe!” And indeed, Horowitz was the embodiment of an ideal which Moshe Feldenkrais taught in a different sphere: his entire physical organization was based on sensitivity (that is, ability to discriminate) and most important, derived from a clear intention.

Great artistry fuelled by an intensely rich imagination

One of the most significant details for me from Horowitz’s biography relates how as a child he would explain as he played, “Now the sun is shining, birds are singing, everything is fine” and his playing would be soft and tender. Then he would become very agitated and scream, “Boom, boom, boom, now a storm!” and his playing would reflect it. To me this gives us a clue that his fantasy was the primary ingredient, the generating source for all those colours and dynamics.

I heard Horowitz two more times, driving down to Boston from Montreal for recitals at Symphony Hall in 1981 and 1986. I count these four experiences as the highlights of my life.

Horowitz at Symphony Hall in Boston, 1981

He opened with 6 Scarlatti Sonatas. The B minor achingly beautiful. I still hear the missed C sharp in the melody, measure 8, which did not serve to spoil anything. In the Liszt B minor Ballade my mouth was gaping for so long that some saliva ran down my throat and you can still hear the coughing fit on the tape my friend made of the concert. I felt terrible – I actually tried to crawl under my seat, because I was dead center in the hall, too far from any door to make a discrete exit… The left hand opening of the Ballade – something amazing was happening, some rumble – God knows!

He played his favorite group of 3 Rachmaninoff Preludes – the G minor was the best I ever heard – totally exciting.

Horowitz at Symphony Hall in Boston, 1986

That last time he was playful, his fingers running along the railing of the walkway between the rows of stage seats as he strolled to his instrument. He even played a few introductory chords, just like the old days, before launching into Mozart. Before the Chopin B minor Scherzo he toyed with the high B octave 2 or 3 times, playing the game of, ‘hey, what’s that sound? Is something on its way?’ before launching into a performance that was more perfect than any of the recorded ones I know.

The real thing infinitely better than the recordings

He started with a group of Scarlatti sonatas, after which my friend Charles turned to me and said, “That alone was worth the exorbitant price we paid for the tickets.” You have to understand something about a Horowitz performance: none of the CD’s or DVD’s even comes close to recreating the experience. It’s like the difference between seeing a cheap reprint of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and then finally, as I did one afternoon in June 1982, standing in awe in front of the real thing at the MOMA in New York. He played the Schubert-Liszt Valse-Caprice that he did in Moscow, and I just remember being transported to another era, another time, and thinking, “God, nothing like this will ever exist again!” I felt so privileged.

I remember audience indecencies – in the Mozart an indescribably beautiful B minor adagio was marred by someone on stage emptying their pockets of change. Quarters rolled around the stage for what seemed like an eternity…  Then the ushers let latecomers into the hall before the sonata instead of waiting until he took a break. He sat there quietly, watching, waiting, as if to say, “I am your servant, please come in”. I marveled, because there was such an air of divinity in the room at the time, I couldn’t believe that anyone could be so stupid as to not respect it or feel it. But now I see that his response was one of true divinity, of service – he was there only to serve, to serve his muse.

Franz Mohr has described his regrets at not being able to help Horowitz believe in God. Would that I, who call myself a Christian, be able to serve God even 1% as well as did Vladimir Horowitz!


By Horowitz’s Side in Russia, 1986

Anthony Casanov has had a long career as a diplomat in cultural relations for the US government, and was cultural attaché to the United States Embassy in Moscow in the 1980’s. It was on a warm spring afternoon in 1999 that Tony, his wife Innes and I sat with our hosts Justin and Barbara Kolb on their magnificent verandah at their estate in the Catskills. We were entranced as Tony reminisced about a very special time with a very special… pianist, but in the light of these reminiscences, a special human being…

Getting Horowitz to Moscow

The Pushkin Museum used to put on these very elite evenings with an exhibition of some sort, plus music. They would get together some famous drawings or perhaps photographs or architectural models, set up 150 or so chairs in one of the rooms of the Pushkin, and invite Sviatoslav Richter or perhaps Emil Gilels to supply the music for the evening. Most of the tickets would go of course to party dignitaries, but the embassy would always receive a few, and of course the ambassador couldn’t go to all of them, so occasionally Tony and his wife Innes got to go.

One evening it was Tony and the ambassador listening to a famous cellist (?) and violist Rivka Golani being accompanied by Richter. Tony was mad because Richter was overpowering them – all you could hear was the piano. But all of a sudden it didn’t matter any more. What trio was it – Shostakovich something. So powerful, so tragic, at the end nobody moved, though a few had wept… then finally tumultuous applause.

It was at some point during that performance that Ambassador Goldman whispered to Tony, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring Horowitz here?” Well, one thing led to another, Moscow contacted some people in Washington, Washington called New York, and eventually it was set up. That was the genesis of the whole event.

They needed somebody to take care of Horowitz while in Russia, and they asked Tony. “Well… I suppose I could do it…” he says, while inside his heart is leaping at the thought of being in constant contact with his ultimate pianistic idol from boyhood!

… Instead of having a prescribed time for trying out the hall, going to the Scriabin museum etc, the whole entourage would have to rely on Horowitz’s whim. One day he wouldn’t feel like it, another day he would say, “let’s go today”.

Horowitz at the Scriabin Museum, Moscow

On the day that they did end up going to the Scriabin museum, to check lighting etc for the official visit to the museum scheduled for later, there were cameramen testing the lighting conditions, lighting men rehearsing where they would walk etc. Horowitz talked with Scriabin’s granddaughter Yelena, one of the two then still surviving (Irina, who passed away in 1998, was not in as good shape as Yelena…). “Do you remember meeting Poppa in here?” she asks. “Do you remember this? You were 9 when you came, yes?”
“NO, 8!”
“8!” and so on – they have an argument!

Walking by the colour organ – Horowitz never showed the slightest interest in it. But Tony asked Yelena how it worked and she showed him. Quite simple. Seven buttons, seven coloured bulbs – press the button the coloured bulb lights up.

Horowitz sits – what should I play? He doodles a bit, “Vat shud I play?, Vat shud I play?”. Finally Wanda says, “Play the etude”, and he starts. The Bechstein piano well-tuned, Yelena standing in the crook of the piano, the two who knew Him in mystic communication, in an ecstasy of memory. The cameraman filming, standing off to Horowitz’s right and behind him. Tony was behind the cameraman, trying not to bump him in the not overly large room. It was hot in there, with all the extra lights and people, and Tony at one point sees the cameraman, balancing this big professional camera on one shoulder with one hand while he takes out a hankie and wipes what Tony thought was sweat from his face.

Horowitz played. The piano spoke. Scriabin lived in the room! When it was over there was no theatrical grin, as is Horowitz’s wont when he plays in public. He just sat, emptied, the torrent of ecstatic passion now spent, and he remaining, an old man.

The cameraman was a big, burly, moving van type of guy. As he turned away from filming that magic moment, Tony was astonished to see tears streaming down his face!

Horowitz in Leningrad, 1986

The entourage (Horowitz, Wanda, the ambassador, Tony, Peter Gelb, …) go to see Tchaikowsky’s opera Eugene Onyegin.

They’re in the box, Horowitz and Wanda in the front row, and of course Peter Gelb has insinuated himself in there too. In the second row of the box sit Tony, Ambassador Greenspan and…

They listen to the first act, the second… As the third act overture gets underway all is fine until suddenly, Horowitz almost screams, actually he just says it in a loud enough voice that all can hear throughout the theatre, “THEY CUT, THEY CUT!” Wanda shushes him. A little further into the overture, and again, “THEY CUT HERE TOO, THEY CUT!” At that point Tony was only too glad that he was not in the front row with them!

After the opera Horowitz and entourage descend to the pit, and as the pit door opens the entire orchestra is there awaiting him and applauding him. The question remains, were they applauding Horowitz, God of a pianist, or simply a fellow opera lover who was passionate enough to protest the surgical reduction of Onyegin?!

Horowitz Plays His Own Compositions on Tchaikowsky’s Piano

At a reception after the opera in Leningrad. Horowitz sits and doodles, something like a Dohnyani waltz gone overripe and macabre, Tony is leaning on the piano listening, the others are off occupying themselves with the provisions. Horowitz asks Tony, “Do you know this?”…
“I’m afraid I don’t”…
“I wrote it”.

He starts something else, a little more flashy… “This??”
“I’m afraid not…”
“It’s mine too”, with a sly smile, affected offhand nonchalance…

Then he starts playing the overture to the third act of Onyegin. “Ah,’ that I know” says/thinks Tony. Horowitz plays on –

“But this you did not hear tonight, because they cut it! Did you notice?” Of course Tony had noticed, if only because he had had his attention rather firmly drawn to it!

“By the way, I never looked at the score, I just know it” Horowitz adds. Did he mean that he learned Onyegin by ear? I suspect he meant that he hadn’t checked the score about those cuts.

Horowitz and the ‘Green Ladies’

When Horowitz was young, there was a group of young ladies who fervently attended every appearance, and always at the end gave him flowers. They always wore green, and called themselves his “Green Ladies”.

After they had been in Leningrad three or four days, Horowitz says, “I feel like trying the hall. Let’s go now.” So they call the hall manager and it’s OK, in twenty minutes they are there. In 1986, for those three weeks in Russia, if Horowitz was to be anywhere at a previously set time, crowds were a huge problem. Everybody wanted to get close to him, to be anywhere near him. But now, since this was spur of the moment, there’s nobody around. Great!

But as they approach the stage door an elderly woman steps forward, she had obviously been waiting for him. It is late April but she has a fresh lilac in her hand. She presents him with it, and says, “I am one of the green ladies”. Horowitz, who is normally completely unflappable, was flabbergasted. Effusive greetings, thanks, etc. How she knew he would be there just then, how she managed to have that lilac, fresh, God only knows.

Horowitz at Tchaikowsky’s Home

They went to the Tchaikowsky residence in Leningrad, saw the desk where so many great works were composed, and there were many autograph manuscripts lying about, the 6th symphony etc. A young pianist, Boris Berzovsky (?) had been invited because he wanted to play for Horowitz. He did. Then, of course, “Maestro, would you do us the honour of playing the master’s piano?”

Contrary to Scriabin’s piano in Moscow, Tchaikowsky’s had not been very well maintained, and it was horribly out of tune to boot. To Tony’s disappointment Horowitz did not play Tchaikowsky but again some of the Scriabin from his current program. The cameras filmed, this was all being filmed by some German TV crew for Deutsch Grammophon, and afterwards he was asked about the piano. “That piano is gavna!” he exclaims emphatically. The German producer is asking Tony what gavna means, and Tony is trying to find a polite way of telling her that it more or less means sheize. When the light dawns she immediately has them roll the tape back and re-record – a very unfortunate decision, as that was really some priceless footage!

Horowitz at Tchaikowsky’s Grave

On that Leningrad visit they also went to the —– Cemetery where so many of the great Russian composers are buried. Tchaikowsky, and several of the mochna glyotchna (the mighty handful) such as Borodin, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov… They walk and they have one of these idiot guides not really into their job , intoning who was buried here, who over there. At one point she asks, are you familiar with such and such a figure…? Horowitz makes some sarcastic comment – was it about Pasternak? He jokes in English not Russian but she understands that the joke is on her…

They get to Tchaikowsky’s grave, his monument is the largest one around. There is a solemn moment. Someone offers Horowitz a small bouquet, he accepts it, walks forward and puts it on Tchaikowsky’s grave. Afterwards he sits alone on a bench. The others off looking at other monuments. Tony approaches, sits beside him. “Maestro, that was very emotional for you, yes?”

“Yes it was… Very emotional… …They’re all here… They’re all here…”


The Day Vladimir Horowitz Died

They say that Horowitz was accoladed the love and adulation normally reserved for rock stars. Yet when John Lennon died, hundreds gathered in Central Park, lit candles in front of the Dakota. Who was there for Horowitz?

Stranger coincidences have happened I suppose, yet how was it that I, a Montrealer who seldom travels, was in New York Sunday November 5, 1989? I was at a Werner Erhard meeting of all things: at one point each of us had to get up and give his life credo, state what gave his life meaning, what were one’s goals, one’s dreams, one’s ideals. I rambled on a bit, then, grasping for words, said the only thing that really sums it up for me: not only to play like Horowitz but to do what Horowitz does, to be the man he is. Strange that even as I was speaking my self, so to speak, he  was breathing his last.

Even stranger: after that meeting the first person I called was a Russian émigré pianist friend of mine, Valery Bukrinsky. Valery hails from Kiev, and in terms of phrasing, sound, elegance of musical expression I know no one who resembles Horowitz more than Valery. All he lacks is the intensity of personality, the fire. Valery is crazy on a small, safe scale whereas even Horowitz’s craziness was monumental! It was Valery who told me over the phone, ‘Alan I have some bad news. Horowitz died this afternoon.’

I met my brother a little later and I’ll never forget crying on his shoulder in the middle of a cold Manhattan street, as if our own father had died. Still later I called Bob McAlear in Montreal and asked him for Horowitz’s address – I was so distraught but I wanted to do something. Something to express my love, my sorrow, even my self-pity: I had always dreamed of knowing him personally and now my chance was gone forever. I bought some candles at a corner store and took a bus up to 94th street, found the house which I knew from pictures of his piano being hauled out of it. I sat on the steps of the next house down, meditated. A cop came by and we started talking. It turns out that he had known Mr. Horowitz, had often helped him to the limosine when he was going out. He told me some nice stories about the old guy. It was nice having the company.

I had written Wanda a letter saying how special, what a God her husband had been and expressing my condolences, saying that the world is with her, sharing in her grief. But I got kind of shy, didn’t want to intrude, a complete stranger dressed in an old army surplus coat and looking more like a local bum than a visiting pianist, so I didn’t do anything. I was just waiting around when the door opened, that strange front door so low down, almost half under street level yet the entrance to such a mansion. A couple of men made their goodbyes to her in the doorway and then came out into the street. What they all thought of me standing there I don’t care to imagine! After that I lit my candles and left them flickering on Horowitz’s basement window sill in the cold November breeze, said a prayer, went back downtown and caught a bus home.

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