Horszowski, Istomin, Serkin, Casals Bach Triple Concerto BWV 1064

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am not going to focus on singers today, but rather on instrumentalists. More specifically on Mieczysław Horszowski. If I had to choose my favorite pianist, I think that it would be Horszowski. I was introduced to his playing by a friend who taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Horszowski was on the faculty. I heard him play in a church on Rittenhouse Square when he was in his 90s, and I heard his farewell concert in Carnegie Hall when he must have been something around 96. His playing was remarkable. He was a child prodigy, and he had studied with the great piano teacher Theodor Leschetizky. Leschetizky produced students with a very distinctive sound – a singing tone that has disappeared from pianists today.

I the first piece that we are going to hear is the Bach Triple Concerto. According to the youtube page, this concert was give to the United Nations General Assembly when Casals, the conductor, was 94.

The next pieces are Horszowski playing solo.

I have to admit that I selected this piece because I played it 1,000 years ago (but not like Horszowski!). The Impromptu requires that the piano sound like the wind. While the notes are not extraordinarily difficult to play, what Horszowski does with the dynamics and the coloring of the sound is extraordinarily difficult.

This Sonata is one of the last pieces that Beethoven wrote. This means that he was deaf when he wrote it. It only has two movements and many fugal elements. Fugal elements were very prominent in Beethoven’s later works.

Mieczyslaw Horszowski

Mieczyslaw Horszowski, a pianist whose performances were admired for their elegance, reflectiveness and clarity of musical intent in a career that lasted more than nine decades, died on May 22, 1993 at his home in Philadelphia. He was 100.

Mr. Horszowski made his debut as a child prodigy, playing a Beethoven concerto in Warsaw in 1901, and continued giving concerts and making recordings until 1992. He was not so famous as Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz or other elder statesmen of the keyboard in the late 20th century. But he always had a strong cult following, and toward the end of his life, his reputation and audience blossomed anew as a younger generation discovered him through a recent series of recordings that reveal his special mastery of the works of Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy and Bach.

He was also greatly esteemed by his colleagues. He was a frequent chamber-music partner of the cellist Pablo Casals. He first performed with Arturo Toscanini in 1906 and continued appearing with him until 1953. When he was seeking an American foothold at the start of World War II, Rudolf Serkin invited him to join the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Throughout his career, he gave recitals with the violinists Joseph Szigeti and Alexander Schneider, the cellist Janos Starker and the tenor Askel Schiotz. And he outlived them all, winning a place in the musical record books for the span of his career. Playing at 3, Touring at 11

Mieczyslaw Horszowski (pronounced myeh-chih-SLAV hor-SHOV-skee) was born on June 23, 1892, in Lvov, Poland (now in Ukraine). His father owned a piano shop, and his mother was an amateur pianist who had studied with Karl Mikuli, a pupil of Chopin. He began to pick out melodies at the piano when he was 3 years old, and by the time he was 5, he was playing the Bach Inventions by memory and composing works of his own.

In 1899 he began his formal studies with Theodor Leschetizky, a legendary virtuoso whose students included Ignace Paderewski, Artur Schnabel, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Ignaz Friedman and other great pianists who flourished in the first half of the 20th century. By 1903 Mr. Horszowski, then 11, was touring Europe and making an impression on some of the great musicians of the day. Around this time, he became friendly with Casals, Rubinstein and the violinist Jacques Thibaud, and he performed for the composers Ravel and Faure.

In 1906, after touring Europe and South America, the 14-year-old pianist made his New York debut. He was known, at the time, for his interpretations of Romantic composers like Tchaikovsky and Grieg. A dozen years later, he changed his emphasis to the music of Ravel, Debussy and the French Impressionists, and after World War II he drifted toward Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven.

Mr. Horszowski dropped out of the performing world for seven years starting in 1911. At the time, he announced that he wanted to continue his studies, not only in music but in Greek, Latin and other academic fields. He settled in Paris until the end of World War I, and then in Milan, where he resumed performing.

At the start of World War II, Mr. Horszowski came to the United States by way of Brazil. He eventually settled in Philadelphia, where he joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute. Among his more distinguished students were Seymour Lipkin, Anton Kuerti, Peter Serkin, Murray Perahia and Richard Goode.

Mr. Horszowski performed widely from the 1940’s on, and he undertook a few marathon projects. In the 1954-55 season, for example, he played all of Beethoven’s solo piano works in 12 recitals. In 1960 he played all the Mozart sonatas in four concerts.

Contemporary music was also part of his repertory, though not a large part of it. In the 1920s, he gave the first New York performances of works by Honegger, d’Indy, Stravinsky and Szymanowski. Even as late as 1975, in a concert celebrating (slightly early) the 75th anniversary of his debut, he gave the New York premiere of a set of Bagatelles by the Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen. And unlike most pianists of his generation, he experimented, though gingerly, with the fortepiano. In 1983, he played part of a recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on an 18th-century Cristofori fortepiano.

From the 1940’s through the early 1970’s, Mr. Horszowski collaborated with other musicians nearly as much as he performed as a soloist. He was a regular visitor to the Casals festivals in the village of Prades, France, and in San Juan, P.R., and he performed with Casals at the United Nations in 1958 and in a televised concert at the White House in 1961. His collaborative performances were often as impressive as his solo recitals. When he accompanied the Polish bass Doda Conrad in Schubert’s “Winterreise” in 1942, for example, he played the lengthy, detailed cycle from memory.

Mr. Horszowski’s memory was one of the secrets of his longevity. In the 1980s, when he began to lose his eyesight, he drew on the enormous repertory he had memorized over the years in preparing for his recitals and recordings. He also relied on his wife, Bice Costa, a pianist whom he married in 1981, who helped him practice by dictating the notes when he was unsure. He married only once, at the age of 89; his wife survives him, as do a sister, Sister Marie Delacroix; a brother, Andre, and a stepbrother, Eugene, all of whom live in France.

Listening to even his very last recordings, one would not have had the impression that he was ever unsure about anything. Among his finest recordings are a set devoted to the first book of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” released by Vanguard in 1981, and a series of mixed recitals recorded by Nonesuch in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A collection of superb live recordings, recorded from 1958 to 1983, was released in 1992 by Pearl Records.

In recording the Nonesuch series, and in presenting his final recitals, Mr. Horszowski rarely provided a program in advance, but instead played the works that moved him at the moment. The result was the kind of pure, unforced musical expression that gave the impression that the music was being improvised on the spot.