Robert Estrin - piano expert

What I Learned From Horowitz

Interesting insight on Vladimir Horowitz

In this video, Robert shares his experiences with one of the greatest pianists of all time.

Released on January 20, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin with a really interesting show for you today, What I Learned From Horowitz. Vladimir Horowitz was a phenomenal pianist and a phenomenon of the 20th century. I remember he used to make comebacks because he would retreat from the concert stage for years and years at a time and people wondered if he'd ever come back. And every time he did, it was an event and his playing was spellbinding. And I did learn a lot from him. I had the good fortune of studying with Constance Keene at the Manhattan School of Music, and she was very good friends with the Horowitz's, both Vladimir and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz. That's right, his wife was the daughter of the great conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Well, she used to come to lessons and would visit with them all the time socially, and I got all kinds of stories and I ended up getting tickets to his concerts, like box seats, and it was a tremendous learning experience for me. And so I want to share some of the tips and aspects of his playing that perhaps you can embrace and try to understand what he did that was so unique. And there's so much to this subject. It's an extraordinarily deep subject we have today for you.

So, let's talk about one of the first things about Horowitz. Aside from his absolutely poetic musicianship, he also had a technique that was kind of mind bending. He would do things that sounded so impossibly hard. One of the things you'd listened to him play, and it sounded so fast. And yet, if you were to compare his performances of the same pieces, to some of the pieces of Horowitz, you discover that indeed his tempos weren't always faster. They just sounded faster. How is this possible? Well, for example, if I were to play for you, Schubert Impromptu, the E Flat Impromptu and play it in a... I would hit the say normal manner, but some typical manner that you might hear this piece it'll sound, something like this.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's quite lovely, it's very flowing, how it has a way with this technique of creating the delineation between notes. So you hear each and every note so clearly, and I want to say, by the way, I'm going to be playing some musicable, musical examples for you today, but I am in no way trying to imitate Horowitz. First of all, it's impossible. But what I'm showing you are just techniques that... So if you could go ahead and listen to Horowitz playing the pieces I'm playing, in some cases, he hasn't even recorded them. That's not the point of this video. The point is what I learned about I'm trying to demonstrate for you in repertoire that makes the point, the best I can. So Horowitz instead of playing that very smoothness, you hear each punctuated note more like this...

So while it wasn't any faster, it gives the impression or the illusion of it being faster because of the articulation of all the notes. So that's one of the aspects of his technique. Listen to his a C-Sharp Minor Chopin, Etude, Opus 10. And you'll see what I'm talking about. The each note being really hammered separate notes, rather than that, just the more of the smooth line. Very interesting, and very edge of your seat. The feeling it gives you is pretty spectacular. Now, what else is a unique or was unique about Horowitz? Well, he had a way of tone production and phrasing that really no one ever had or to this day has been able to duplicate. Whereas, most people will play a musical line. Like for example, I'm going to play a Chopin-Waltz in E Flat. I try to make a very smooth line.

Now there's a property of the piano that when you play notes, They're fading out right, or Horowitz use this to his advantage. Instead of trying to just force a smooth line, he would strategically listen to how one note would melt into the next and somehow curve out a line with all these angular little tonal shadings. And I'm going to try to achieve a Horowitz type of effect, even though I don't even know if he ever played this particular waltz, but this is the kind of thing that Horowitz would do. And I would try to imitate in my playing, because it was such a compelling sound. I'll let you see for the above this time.

Now it's not that Horowitz played this piece like that, or I don't even know if he did play this piece. But we're showing you is trying to get... Calling your attention to these little places. Now, ordinarily, if other pianists try to achieve this, it would have a very mannered approach, but somehow he could get a sense of a piece of a composition and just have these little gems of beauty that somehow you put these all gems together and you'd have this magnificent line. Now, the funny thing is, if you ever do try to listen to a performance of Horowitz and imitate, it almost never works.

There was a unique character to his musicianship that was unlike anybody else in that respect. Now, what else? One of the things that Horowitz was really known for in his playing was not just having the nice balance from the bottom to the top, with the melody being heard above the other notes. For example, if I played a little bit of the intersection of Chopin's-A Flat Ballade, his third ballade, you might want think about having the top line, the base, and to get a balanced like this.

It's very lovely. It's very smooth. Now, I haven't even listened to Horowitz's performance in this. I think it's recorded because when I'm sure you are not imitations of what he actually did, it's just the types of techniques that he used tonally. And I'm just going to try to do something that would be Horowitz like, in terms of bringing out inner lines and you wouldn't expect to be brought out and baselines and things just to call to your attention constantly notes that keep it constantly interesting.

No, once again, I'm not saying Horowitz would play it this way, but the idea of paying as much attention to inner lines and baselines and not just paying a static homogenous type of soprano is the loudest, the base is the second loudest, inner voices are softer and maintaining that strata of musical lines, which is what most performers do. And there's nothing wrong with that, by the way, I'm not saying that this is better or worse. It's just different. That's why you listen to Horowitz. And it doesn't sound like anybody else. Listen to his G Minor Ballade of Chopin. By the way, he recorded it many times, including many live performances. I got to hear him on more than one occasion play the Chopin G Minor Ballade live. And he never played at the same twice, and it's a highly individual interpretation. So these are some of the things I've learned from Horowitz.

So I'm going to give you one last example, which I once talked about years ago in one of my videos, which was one of his many comebacks was in the 1970s. And he was playing at the huge Metropolitan Opera House. I mean, can you imagine a piano recital in a hall of that size? Well, anyway, because it was a comeback was a big event. There was actually 100s of people camping out the night before it. I was one of the number three 11 in line and waiting for the tickets to go on sale the following morning. A little fun thing the only time I really met Horowitz was there because he came by about three, two 33 in the morning with Wanda and handing out donuts and coffee to the people in line, which I thought was really sweet. But anyway, I get to the front of the line finally to the ticket, and they only allowed two tickets to each person.

So, I got my two tickets and they were in like the nosebleed section, like about as far away as you could see, I mean, he was a little like an ant on this stage. Cause that hall is enormous, typically not a piano recitals there, right? Because, it's so large. Anyway, everything sounded smooth and wonderful, just absolute jam. And it was a cataclysmically beautiful performance. Everything was just very refined. Now, even though I camped out to see him, it was just a couple of months later, my teacher, Constance Keene, who was such good friends with the Horowitz's said, he's playing at Carnegie Hall. How many tickets would you, like I said, you're kidding. And so I got tickets box seats, like right there, as close as you could get in Carnegie hall, it was unbelievable. And this is what was so fascinating is that, I had just heard them in the back of a huge hall and everything sounded very refined and smooth.

When I was that up close, there was an angularity and there was almost, I hate to use the word go task, but sometimes it's a grotesque beauty of Horowitz because, things are kind of contorted to stretched a bit. And when you're up close, you hear this. For example, when you're in a big hall and you have a rapid passage and a cord, you need a little space for the reverb of a hall to dissipate when you're up close. I mean, when you're far away, you don't even notice any of these things, but up close, you can hear how everything is delineated. Everything is exaggerated. In fact, even in much smaller concert halls, it's absolutely essential to exaggerate dynamics phrasing to take time in certain places, depending upon the acoustics of the hall. And man, did he understand this and hearing about up close after just having heard him?

So, I'm so far away was enlightening to understand how he was able to achieve a sound in a large hall where you felt like he was playing just for you, even if you were way in the back of the balcony, everything came through so clearly. Up close, it was almost like getting close to a painting and seeing all the brush strokes it was extremely angular and well-defined. So I learned a great deal about how he approached the piano. Technically it's a whole other area. He played the piano, like no one else sitting rather low. And a lot of times it looked like kind of almost like flat fingers really. And his piano was, was an unorthodox piano. He had it regulated with a very shallow action, I believe very very light and super hard hammers, very bright. So anytime he put down just a little bit of weight, it was a roar.

And the magic of his technique was being able to play so lightly that he could control this. So anytime he wanted power, all they had to do was let a little bit of weight down. So he didn't have to sit at a height that most people sit so they can use the weight of the arms or even the body. In the case of some really light people. There're some women who are a 100 pounds might have to use the whole arm or body to get the power. No, for Horowitz he just sits down here and he something punctuated, just put a little bit, explosion of sound. There's news recording, pictures at an exhibition. And you'll see what I'm talking about. Or some of his transcriptions, almost any of them Stars and Stripes, The Carmen ,Bizet's Carmen Fantasy, and things like that.

And you'll hear exactly what I'm talking about. So he was a one of a kind pianist, no one ever like him. And it's interesting to try to incorporate some of the aspects of his playing, but it's all been possible. It really is because he made things work and I'll leave you with this thought Horowitz could do things that sounded so convincing, but then when you really analyzed it or tried to do it yourself, it would fall flat. And you wonder how the heck could he do these crazy things, and it sounded so perfect? Like it sound, who sound like the way the piece should absolutely go like it shouldn't go no other way. And yet it was the conviction of his playing that pulled it off. Even though, what he was doing was rather odd. Somehow the magic of the execution made it all work and made it so fascinating to listen to. I Hope you listen to some Horowitz recordings and realize that a lot of the recordings that he made very late in his life, like in the 1980s, he was not playing the same way he played younger.

Although, there were some performances in the 80s that were stellar. I believe there's a Mozart, A Major Concerto. That was absolutely beautiful that was made towards the end of his life. But some of the performances that he did very late in his life were a little bit more extreme, give a good listen to a representation of his career. And I think it's well worth it because you'll hear so much variety of colors, listen to his Scarlatti Sonatas, for example, just exquisite, the total control. And when I'm talking about the separate notes where each note is articulated, much like a harpsichord would be.

So those are some facets of what I learned from Vladimir Horowitz. I hope there's something of value for you here. And at the very least encourage you to go out and listen to some of his discography. There are live concerts, well concert. He did at the white house in the 1970s. That is pretty incredible. The recorded sounds not great, but you can actually see him play. And it's a great program. So I hope you've enjoyed this again. I'm Robert Estrin. This is Your online piano resource, lots of videos here. And if you want even more in depth videos, consider joining my Patrion. Thanks so much. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Eddie Cocks on April 14, 2021 @6:24 am PST
Hi, Robert. Well, it certainly sounds exactly like a conventional string piano and I guess it must play like one because you're lifting hammers there, but what is it ?
Robert - host, on April 14, 2021 @3:28 pm PST
The piano I use in many of my videos is the second modular piano system prototype I have developed. It offers a virtual concert grand playing experience because it has a 9-foot concert grand action as the controller.
Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on January 21, 2021 @6:05 pm PST
Robert ... you were able to capture so many of the magical qualities
of Horowitz's performances...As you say, he was a poet on the piano, with superb tonal control, phrasing, and articulation. When you referred to his ability to use the "dying away" of notes on the piano to great effect, when appropriate....that reminded me of a CBS telecast of his last concert in Moscow many decades ago...and in particular when he played a rather simple piece...Schumann's "Traumerei"...he took his time with the piece, letting notes die away...phrasing them in a most magical could hear a pin drop in the full capacity concert hall...his rendition was rather quiet and rather impossible to describe in words, except to say that it had one hanging onto each and every note, and hoping it would go on forever. It was clearly the best performance of this simple piece I have ever heard. I have tried, without success, to emulate his manner of playing this on the violin...simply because it was pure musical magic and transcendent in its poetry. One does not hear such magical performances very often...the only other one I can remember in my own experience was a concert years ago when Szymon Goldberg played the A Major violin concerto with a symphony orchestra...again a performance of magical inspired poetry. One can only strive to attain such artistry, and hope that some time or other it occurs. As you say, Horowitz was very individualistic in his artistry...Similarly, one could say the truly great musicians are all rather individualistic in that regard...As a violinist, I would refer, for example, to the rather marked differences between Fritz Kreisler, Heifetz, and Nathan their manner of performing the same pieces and indeed any piece...Today, we seem to have a greater number of technically superb virtuosos who were fashioned out of a cookie cutter, so to speak, and who all seem to sound similar to each other.
Robert A Estrin - host, on January 22, 2021 @8:08 am PST
There was far greater musical experimentation in early 20th century than today generally. I attribute this at least partly to the fact that it is now possible for everyone to hear everyone else at the push of a button where as years ago, people didn't know how others played for the most part.
Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on January 22, 2021 @11:40 am PST
A couple of additional comments, Robert., if I may:
1. When I referred to the A Major Violin Concerto in my initial
comment...I forgot to mention it was the 5th violin concerto by Mozart.
2. An additional reason there is now a more cookie cutter approach to performing music, in my opinion, is the proliferation of "competitions" which seem to foster or observe certain so-called "standards" which tend to deny or down play the validity of more "original" conceptions re the interpretation of the pieces chosen for these competitions...i.e., which tend to "standardize" certain interpretations as being the ones preferred by the judges.
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