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World-Renowned Pianist Vladimir Horowitz Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vladimir Horowitz, whose brilliant technique and emotional profundity led many to consider him the 20th Century’s greatest pianist, died Sunday at his townhouse on New York City’s Upper East Side.

Horowitz, 85, suffered a heart attack about 12:30 p.m., said his manager, Peter Gelb.

“I believe he died of some sort of massive, major heart attack,” Gelb said, noting that details would have to come from medical officials.

“Horowitz was undoubtedly the greatest pianist of the 20th Century,” said Glenn Plaskin, author of “Horowitz,” a critical biography published in 1983. “He had more physical energy, more electricity, than any musician that came onto that platform. He was the Greta Garbo of the concert stage.”

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His last concerts were in western Europe in 1987, Gelb said. He had a studio at his home, and shortly before his death he had been at work on a recording of Haydn, Mozart and Liszt.

Funeral arrangements were uncertain. But Horowitz’s wife, Wanda, daughter of the late conductor Arturo Toscanini, is believed to want her husband buried in the Toscanini family burial plot in Milan, Italy, Gelb said.

Throughout his life, Horowitz was renowned for his erratic behavior, Plaskin said, calling him “temperamental, demanding and a perfectionist. He was extremely charming. He would have loved the attention he’s getting now.”

Horowitz influenced generations of pianists and other musicians, said violinist Shlomo Mintz, adding: “The last of the tradition of great pianism has passed away.”

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Pianist Artur Rubinstein never forgot having heard Horowitz play for the first time in the 1920s. In his autobiography, Rubinstein wrote that the performance “was much more than sheer brilliance and technique; there was also an easy elegance--the magic something which defies description.”

For more than 50 years, Horowitz’s records were bestsellers, and he won a score of Grammy awards for best classical recordings.

In a 1982 interview, he said recordings had made modern audiences better than those of earlier years.

“In the past the public did not understand music,” he said. “But now, through records, cassettes, they know so much, you no longer have to exaggerate. My playing has become simpler, and simplicity is wisdom.”

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Of audience appreciation, Horowitz said: “It’s the silence that matters, not the applause. Anyone can have applause. But the silence, before and during the playing--that is everything.”

Especially noted for his dynamic interpretations of such composers as Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Chopin, Horowitz’s fees for a performance--as much as 80% of the gross--were a tribute to his genius.

His televised performances enabled him to be seen and heard by more people in the last decade of his life than in all the previous years during which he graced the concert stage.

Born in Kiev, Russia, on Oct. 1, 1904, Horowitz was the youngest of four children of Simeon and Sophie Horowitz, whose first house was fortuitously located on Music Street.

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Dramatic Approach

From the age of 5, after he had already studied piano with his mother for two years, Horowitz dazzled and dismayed critics and patrons alike with his freewheeling, dramatic interpretations of composers old and new.

And if he was not always true to the score, he consistently was true to his lifelong maxim--to “make a percussive instrument sing.”

His parents appreciated their son’s talent but did not raise him as a musical prodigy. They wanted him to become an educated man.

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At age 12, he was sent to high school as well as the Kiev Music Conservatory, where he studied composition and piano under Felix Blumenfeld, who had studied under Anton Rubinstein.

Horowitz initially wanted to be a composer, learning the repertoire of all instruments and memorizing operas. He wrote for voice and piano and was deep in his studies when the Bolshevik Revolution convulsed Russia in 1917.

The revolution--which cost his parents their home--was the “accident” that made him a concert pianist.

“With my own eyes I saw them throw our piano through the window,” he told an interviewer in 1978.

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He gave a series of concerts in Khartov in 1922 to earn money to support his family. This led to a tour of the Soviet Union in 1924, and a year later he was allowed to leave the country to “study” abroad.

His first recitals were in Berlin, and word of his talent spread quickly throughout Europe. He played for royalty in a triumphant tour of European capitals and left audiences gasping for new adjectives in nearly every major European concert hall.

He came to America in 1928 and appeared with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham, who was also making his U.S. debut.

Determined to upstage the maestro, Horowitz chose Tchaikovsky’s B-Minor Concerto. He later recalled that he “played louder, faster and more notes than Tchaikovsky wrote.”

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He finished several bars ahead of the orchestra, leading critic Olin Downes to note: “The call of the wild is heard whether it is a savage beating a drum or a young Russian, mad with excitement, physical speed and power, pounding on a keyboard.”

After Horowitz brilliantly played Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto at a later concert, the composer put to rest any questions about Horowitz’s genius, saying: “He swallowed it whole.”

Rachmaninoff’s tribute was all the more significant because it came at a time when Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hoffman, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Rachmaninoff himself--all giants in an era of keyboard geniuses--were performing.

In 1933, Horowitz met Toscanini, who was then leading the New York Philharmonic in a cycle of Beethoven concerts. The maestro Toscanini chose Horowitz as soloist for the Emperor Concerto. Horowitz chose Toscanini’s daughter, Wanda, as his wife.

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“She made a man out of me, and her father made me a musician,” Horowitz said years after their wedding. “I began to play more straight.”

But Toscanini also gave the young Horowitz this “unstraight” advice: “If you want to please only the critics, don’t play too loud, too soft, too fast, too slow.”

Thereafter he became both impressionist and entertainer, with an accent on the latter.

In 1935 Horowitz gave nearly 100 recitals. The resulting fatigue--coupled with a difficult appendectomy--sent him into seclusion in France and Switzerland.

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What he had been doing, he said when he emerged in 1938, was studying.

By 1940 he had returned to an enthusiastic reception at his favored Carnegie Hall and in 1943, in a single concert with Toscanini, raised $11 million in war bonds.

His mysterious absences from the concert stage, which have lasted as long as 12 years, and his spur-of-the-moment decisions about where and when he will play or record a piece contributed to his popularity and legend.

In six decades, Horowitz had four periods when he gave up public concerts: from 1935-38, 1953-65, 1969-72 and 1983-85. The reasons for his absences varied but were usually related to some form of exhaustion.

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After his first hiatus in the 1930s, Horowitz said, “I was at the point where I played certain works so often that I couldn’t hear them anymore, even while my fingers were performing them.”

A Return at 81

When he left the Soviet Union in 1925, ostensibly to study abroad, Horowitz vowed never to return. In early 1986, at age 81, he changed his mind.

“Before I die, I want to see the country where I was born,” he said. “But I didn’t want to go home as a tourist. I want to play.”

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His two concerts in Moscow and Leningrad in April, 1986, were triumphs. About 2,000 music lovers jammed Moscow’s Conservatory of Music to hear the master’s first concert in the Soviet Union in 61 years.

Hundreds more braved a cold rain outside the conservatory in the hope of getting a spare ticket or even a glimpse of the Russian-born pianist.

Between pieces, Horowitz delighted the Moscow audience with his antics, pointing and waving at friends, blowing kisses to the crowd, sniffing carnations and sticking his tongue out at television cameras.

When it was over, Horowitz, seemingly unmoved by the eight-minute standing ovation, firmly closed his piano and shooed the audience out.

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“Stop clapping . . . Go home,” he said in Russian.

The recording “Horowitz in Moscow” won a Grammy in 1988, a year in which he also won a Grammy for his special contribution to music.

He was on the cover of Time magazine the following week and later was given the Medal of Freedom for his “pilgrimage of peace” by President Ronald Reagan.

In 1944 Horowitz became an American citizen and an avid baseball fan.

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And he could afford any seat in the ballpark. He now was the highest-paid concert artist in the country, if not the world.

His fee had become up to 80% of the house. Toward the end of his career these percentages were earning him $50,000 and more per concert.

His eccentricities were becoming as famous as his performances.

The concerts were scheduled only on Sundays and started precisely at 4 p.m. so the maestro could take a nap both before and after a performance with time left in the evening for a leisurely dinner of chicken. (It was always chicken for breakfast and dinner and a small plate of frozen gray sole for lunch.)

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He drank nothing alcoholic and, until he abandoned the habit completely very late in life, smoked sparingly (“six cigarettes only a day,” he told one interviewer. “You see how disciplined I am?”)

In 1953 he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall, repeating the Tchaikovsky concerto he had played in 1928.

“His technique is no longer an end in itself (for) he has transformed himself from a fire-eating virtuoso into a self-critical, searching artist,” Howard Taubman wrote in the New York Times Magazine.

He was soon to disappear again, this time for 12 years. He reappeared in an interview with High Fidelity Magazine in which he blamed his latest hiatus on a nervous stomach, the exhaustion of travel and a growing malaise he was encountering in preparing for each performance.

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The years had not been spent in total silence, however.

He won Grammy awards in 1962, ’63, ’64 and ’65, making him the first classical performer ever to be so honored in four consecutive years.

He said he returned to the concert stage as a result of recording in a studio in an old church. In an effort to improve the acoustics for the recordings, he suggested that the sessions be moved to Carnegie Hall. When he showed up there to practice, rumors spread that he was preparing a comeback.

Whether his motive was to appease the rumormongers or to make himself known to a new generation is not clear, but he returned to the concert stage May 9, 1965.

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Music critic Harold C. Schonberg found the “new” Horowitz “less interested in detail, more interested in the long line, the structure of a piece, a consecutive musical flow.”

The concert was recorded live and retains several wrong notes, which Horowitz dismissed as “adding a human quality.”

Horowitz limited his concerts to areas where he could travel by car or train, remaining near his New York home, and maintain his diet and sleeping habits. Despite those precautions, he contracted a serious cold in 1969 and returned to seclusion for three more years.

By 1972 he was again playing in public, alternating among major cities, college campuses and an occasional community auditorium.

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In 1978, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his American debut, he performed at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic--his first performance with an orchestra in 25 years.

Said Horowitz of conductor Eugene Ormandy: “We will understand each other.”

Taking Liberties

The music was Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, the work the composer had said Horowitz “swallowed whole” many years earlier.

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Horowitz took his usual liberties with the score and received his usual ovations from crowd and critic.

Thereafter he was seen occasionally at the concerts of others. In the perfunctory interviews that seemed to accompany each of his recitals (he had by now abandoned concerts) he would single out young regional talent for praise--unless, of course, they played as someone else said they should, neither too loud nor too fast.

“Played percussively, the piano is a bore,” he told one interviewer. “If I go to a concert and someone plays like that, I have two choices: to go home or to sleep.”

He gradually reduced his own recitals to fewer than a dozen a year, but now there were no mysteries surrounding the infrequent appearances--only an old man betrayed by an aging body that somehow found new life for his Moscow and Leningrad concerts and the European concerts that followed the Geneva summit and the 1986 U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange accords.

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“He’s unique and probably he is often wrong,” violinist Nathan Milstein once said of his old friend.

“But you can’t say Niagara Falls is wrong.”

Times staff writer Edward J. Boyer contributed to this story.


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