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The Complete Masterworks Recordings, Vol. 6:…

The Complete Masterworks Recordings, Vol. 6: Sonatas Nos. 14, 21 & 23

by Ludwig van Beethoven, Vladimir Horowitz

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Vladimir Horowitz

The Complete Masterworks Recordings

Vol. VI: Beethoven Sonatas

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight”

[1] I. Adagio sostenuto [5’55]
[2] II. Allegretto [2’29]
[3] III. Presto agitato [7’21]
(Recording: 30th Street Studio, New York City, April 20 & 27, 1972)

Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 “Waldstein”
[4] I. Allegro con brio [10’26]
[5] II. Introduzione. Adagio molto – attacca: [3’50]
[6] III. Rondo. Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo [9’35]
(Recording: 30th Street Studio, New York City, December 20, 1972)

Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”
[7] I. Allegro assai [9’34]
[8] II. Andante con motto – attacca: [5’56]
[9] III. Allegro, ma non troppo – Presto [8’01]
(Recording: 30th Street Studio, New York City, October 25 & 30, 1972)

Vladimir Horowitz, piano

Sony Classical, 1993. 63’37. General introduction to the series by Wanda Toscanini-Horowitz and Thomas Frost. “Vladimir Horowitz (1903–1989): A Tribute” by Byron Janis. “Beethoven and the Piano” (1973/74) by Thomas Frost.


Beethoven is a composer Vladimir Horowitz never really came to grips with. He didn’t play much Haydn and (except in his last years) Mozart, but he was generally much more successful with their music. With Beethoven, more often than not, he was in trouble. No more than nine sonatas, one concerto (No. 5), one trio and the 32 Variations in C minor can be found in his repertoire. Most of them he played only early in his career and completely dropped after the Second World War. Op. 101 was the Beethoven work that stayed the longest in his repertoire, but for 50 years (1933-83) he played only 20 performances (three in 1933, six in 1967-8, three in 1980, eight in 1983). Horowitz never made a studio recording of it, but from the plenty of live performances released, one more awkward than the other, it is clear he was uncomfortable with the work. On the other hand, his single studio recording of the Fifth Concerto (1952), which he last played in public in the mid-1930s, is both stylish and spectacular.

These late Columbia recordings, made shortly before Horowitz left the label in 1973, are his second of the Waldstein (1956) and the Appassionata (1959) and third for the Moonlight (1946, 1956). It is amazing to observe how little he played these works in public. “Mr. Horowitz has played this Sonata numerous times in concert”, says Thomas Frost, long-term producer and close friend, about the Moonlight. This is all very well, but the most comprehensive Horowitz database online (to which I am greatly indebted) gives exactly two (!) live performances, on April 18 and 28, 1947. Waldstein was played only four times in 1945, Appassionata only twice – in 1928![1] But these statistics should not become a source of prejudice. It’s easy to repeat the old chestnut about “forging” an interpretation in the concert hall before recording it in the studio. This is nonsense, probably born from the vanity of public and critics (who, after all, are part of the public, much as they want to pretend otherwise). Horowitz never played the Pathétique Sonata at all, yet the 1963 recording for Columbia is one of the finest things he ever did. So, let’s listen to some music.

Harold Schonberg was particularly harsh about this recording of the Moonlight Sonata. He called it “peculiar” and a “sad story”, the first movement “painfully rigid”, the finale “positively perverse”. I have to agree, especially about the finale. The main bone of contention are the sforzandi which Horowitz all but ignores. It doesn’t work. The dramatic power of the music is lost. One has to admit Beethoven knew what he was doing when he did write those sforzandi. However, Mr Schonberg’s claim that “mannerism was beginning to creep into Horowitz’s playing” is a little misleading. This particular mannerism can also be heard in the 1946 recording (and the 1947 live performance, for that matter), although admittedly to a lesser degree.

Appassionata and Waldstein are different matter. Horowitz was always more successful in these two mighty masterpieces, and so is the case here. The interpretation is essentially the same as in the older RCA recordings, but the sound is vastly superior. This is especially important to appreciate the orchestral sonority and the wealth of detail that Horowitz brings to these sonatas. This was hard to do even on the 1959 Appassionata, Horowitz’s first stereo recording, not to mention the 1956 Moonlight and Waldstein which have some of the most atrocious piano timbre ever captured on record. Columbia, though they provided Horowitz with excellent sound throughout the 1960s, had some embarrassing sonic mishaps in the early 1970s (e.g. the Schubert impromptus from 1973). But this is one of their better, relatively warm and natural, achievements.

To sum up, these late Columbia recordings, excepting the Moonlight, are not only played with panache that belies the fact they were made soon after Horowitz celebrated his 69th birthday, but they also document a way of playing Beethoven which, taken on its own, is entirely self-sufficient and very much worth exploring. Interpretation-wise, I would say the RCA attempts from the 1950s, though the same in general, are slightly fresher and more spontaneous – again excepting the Moonlight from 1956 which is very different and much superior. Sound-wise, there is no comparison. Columbia from 1972, even if they have better achievements from the 1960s, wins over RCA from the 1950s any time.

On the whole, Horowitz’s Beethoven is more febrile and more episodic – or more “Romantic” if you like the senseless cliché – than the one presented by the so-called “Beethoven specialists” (e.g. Wilhelm Kempff). The side effect is that the sonatas may sound longer than usual. On the other hand, there are moments of tension, excitement and imagination that no other pianist, certainly no Beethoven specialist, is able to match.

[1] Live recordings of the Moonlight (28 April 1947) and the Waldstein (28 March 1945) have been released officially in the so-called Private Collection. ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 1, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
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