INKPOT#79 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No.6. Piano Concerto. Horowitz/NBCSO/Toscanini (Naxos Toscanini Concert Edition)
Piotr Illyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 “Pathétique”
Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23Recorded at Carnegie Hall, New York, 19th April 1941
Vladimir Horowitz piano
NBC Symphony Orchestra
conducted by ARTURO TOSCANINI
NAXOS Historical Toscanini Concert Edition 8.110807
by Derek Lim
A favourite anecdote relates how Horowitz performed the B-flat minor Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto at one and a half hour’s notice while in Hamburg in 1926. This is only half the story. The rest recounts how the conductor, who didn’t think very highly of this very young artist (then only 23) said “Just follow me”, or something to that effect, when it was time to perform.
Horowitz (left, in his later years) would do no such thing, of course. The conductor started the concerto, and then when Horowitz came in on the famous crashing chords of the concerto, the conductor just stopped conducting and gasped at Horowitz before continuing, stunned.
On this CD is a ‘live’ performance of Horowitz and his beloved Tchaikovsky concerto, which would launch him to worldwide fame, with which he also made his debut in USA in a hair-raising performance with Sir Thomas Beecham and the NYPO. While there are accounts in better sound, and as far as I know, one with Sir John Barbirolli which catches Horowitz in an even more fiery mood, I find in this performance enough fire to be very excited about.
Toscanini (Horowitz’s father-in-law in this point) was never a terrific accompanist – he tended to assert his own interpretation; here he delivers a passionate accompaniment without hindering Horowitz’s flights of fantasy. Try the opening for taste, and then the orchestral interludes in the finale, for Toscanini’s contributions, and then try Horowitz’s short cadenza passage in the finale leading to the coda of the piece. Mind-blowing stuff, this.
Horowitz and Toscanini (right) really put themselves up each other as they tackle this performance, and Horowitz tends to make octaves sound easier than single notes. Toscanini starts the concerto at a very fast pace, and Horowitz quickly proves himself worthy of this pace – and then speeds it up! This interpretation of the concerto is nothing very Romantic, yet in its far-sightedness in choice of tempi, it reminds us of what Tchaikovsky must have had in mind when composing this piece – a piece meant for a super-virtuoso with technique to burn, but also enough maturity to handle the more emotional parts of the piece. All these are qualities Horowitz has.
His handling of the first movement (“handling” is a good word here, since he plays with the notes like putty) is, while amazingly full of character at every turn, and lacking nothing in excitement, manages to convey the intimacy of the tender moments. His interpretation cannot be called lyrical by any means, yet there is an attractive rough-edged, unpolished unsentimental beauty to his second movement, achieving the Andante semplice that Tchaikovsky may have intended. Yet the bravura of the last movement will leave you clapping, in your mind at least, with the obviously enraptured audience on that 19th of April, 1941.
At this price, one should not think twice, but for the unconvinced, let me introduce you to the rest of the performance. The “filler” is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in a lean mean Toscanini performance, which is oddly affecting its own way. I find his unsentimental handling of even the sweetest motifs very refreshing. As with many Toscanini performances, this is one which will leave you breathless.
Unfortunately the orchestra members often seem to struggle to keep up too, the relics of ‘live’ performances, I guess. The effect is like that of a whirlwind storming its way, scattering the music left right and centre, exciting but ultimately too nerve-wrecking. Also I feel that in this kind of interpretation some moments of great drama are wasted, for example the entry of the trumpets in the first movement was not exploited. Nevertheless, Toscanini tends to take flowing tempi, which one may find very refreshing after Bernstein, et al. It puts a new perspective on the music and sounds, ultimately, to these ears, quite sincere. Having said that, I know I’ll keep putting on Horenstein’s performance on Royal Classics, and Furtwängler’s extraordinary performance on EMI.
OK, now you can go and buy it. Super-bargain price, legendary performance. I know no other disc that offers this repertoire at this price, that delivers so much. Sound quality is so-so as you can expect, but listenable. (Don’t listen through earphones, these will only highlight the recording flaws!).
If you are in Singapore, this disc can be found at or ordered from Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place), HMV (The Heeren), or Sing Discs (Raffles City).
Derek Lim used to score Cs and Ds for History tests. He also humbly suggests that Symphony 92.4 start telling people what they are playing, before he wrecks his radio.
505: 14.6.1999 Derek Lim