Mieczyslaw Horszowski: Vatican Recital & Beethoven Masterworks – Arbiter 

by | Apr 9, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Mieczyslaw Horszowski: Vatican Recital, 1940; BEETHOVEN, 1952-1975: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; Eroica Variations in E-flat Major, Op. 35; Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein” – Arbiter 165 (2 CDs) 79:55; 79:27 (4/18/18) [arbiterrecords.org] *****:

Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993) had already become a living legend when I met Emanuel Winternitz, curator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1969, who had invited me to study with him.  When Winternitz invited me to Horszowski’s birthday party, I unfortunately had  to decline, but I did ask Dr. Winternitz to convey my admiration for the Vox recording of the Diabelli Variations by Horszowski. But the Beethoven merely represented one – though major – influence on my appreciation of grandly conceived music, since I had heard Horszowski in concert and on record with such luminaries as Sascha Schneider, Joseph Szigeti, Frederic Waldman, and the famous White House concert that included Pablo Casals.  A master of varied touches and adept insight into the scores he championed, Horszowski brought a deep and broad culture to his music, certainly; but his limpid capacity to make of the piano a singing instrument could stagger, not only in Mozart and Chopin, but in Brahms, as when I auditioned his marvelous Mercury Record of the Brahms Horn Trio.

Producer Allan Evans had already issued the 1940 Vatican recital, the etiology of which he catalogues with extensive detail: the 1992 interview in which he mentioned a layover in Rome to perform for Pope Pius XII.  The National Socialist regime, which despite its despicable horrors invented magnetic tape, had permitted the technical preservation of Horszowski’s recital for posterity.  And so, Horszowski became the first pianist ever to have recorded on magnetic tape.  Here, the recital receives a fresh restoration, and we benefit to hear the forty-eight-year-old Polish master at one of the many peaks of his artistic powers.

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

Rather than belabor the individual moments in Beethoven’s two sets of variations: the Op. 35 from 27 September 1975 and the Diabelli from 19 November 1970, suffice it to say that Horszowski preserves a marvelous balance of architecture and drama, of lyric buoyancy and contrapuntal felicity. We find no attempt to soften Beethoven’s passing dissonances, those passages of frenzy and punishing harmony.  No less piquant are those moments of broad wit and parody, especially in the Diabelli set. Each of the respective performances maintains the integrity of the individual variation as it extends and contributes to the chain of being it supports. The resonance of Horszowski’s instrument in these Philadelphia performances permits a full and rich sonority that avoids ping and intrusive overtones.

The Waldstein Sonata derives from a New York recital from March 1952.  Despite the inferior sound, Horszowski projects the opening eighth notes, brisk runs, and then inflects the E Major chorale theme with a plastic nobility. No less resonant, the triplet form of the chorale launches a series of chromatic intricacies. The percussive elements move dramatically and briskly, with a few dropped notes. The ff cascade becomes tumultuous and layered, heralding the recapitulation. Horszowski imparts a slow mystique to the dotted rhythm Introduzione whose repeated notes segue directly into Rondo: Allegretto moderato. Horszowski maintains a hushed expectancy until resounding trill opens the exalted festivities. He modulates into C minor that will find its own, potent, stratified means to a triumphant C Major. Even in distant sonics, Horszowski’s pearly play and silken legatos urge themselves into our aural consciousness. The central melody’s having attained luminosity, Horszowski breaks into a hustling Prestissimo to conclude a scholarly, virtuoso performance of no mean conviction.

Portrait of Chopin


Allan Evans grants Bice Horszowski Costa full credit for her efforts to restore the Vatican recital of 1940. The alternately volcanic and liquid energies in Chopin’s B minor Scherzo, Op. 20 first transfix us with their bravura, only to have the middle section noel hypnotize us. The D-flat Berceuse enjoys the same transparent fluidity and pulse in harmonic-rhythm as that achieved by Solomon Cutner in his classic rendition. Franck’s Choral from his famous Prelude, Choral, et Fugue offers a noble procession that enjoys various degrees of nuance and emotional resolve.

Portrait Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt

The two Liszt St. Francis Legends, those of Francis and Paolo, project the aerial acrobatics with the same refined luster as any of the Liszt famous water pieces. The bird sermon established those musical conceits that Ravel and Messiaen will exploit later. The walk upon the water beckons amazing bass sonorities from Horszowski, over which a stoic chorale proceeds. The “Raindrop” Prelude lilts, surely, but its middle section says something fateful. After a mercurial, fleet, Chopin Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major, Horszowski delivers a passionate G minor Ballade No. 1, Op. 23 on a par with anything by Hofmann and Horowitz. Its Neapolitan progressions and dark recitative embody a torrent equivalent to the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata. The final work, the Funeral March from the B-flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35 not only establishes an aristocratic tempo, but its trio section captures an other-worldly wraith in nostalgic retrospect.

—Gary Lemco


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