Arbiter Records 119

Horszowski plays Beethoven: four piano sonatas

Track List: Live recordings from Parma and Philadelphia, 1975 - 77

Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993) was taught by a pupil of Beethoven’s assistant Czerny: he is but three steps from the composer himself and his own insight guides him to a high interpretive level.

  1. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A, op. 2, no. 2: I
  2. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A, op. 2, no. 2: II
  3. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A, op. 2, no. 2: III
  4. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A, op. 2, no. 2: IV
  5. Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor, op. 10, no.1: I
  6. Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor, op. 10, no.1: II
  7. Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor, op. 10, no.1: III
  8. Beethoven Piano Sonata in G, op. 14, no. 2: I
  9. Beethoven Piano Sonata in G, op. 14, no. 2: II
  10. Beethoven Piano Sonata in G, op. 14, no. 2: III
  11. Beethoven Piano Sonata in E, op. 109: I
  12. Beethoven Piano Sonata in E, op. 109: II
  13. Beethoven Piano Sonata in E, op. 109: III

The importance of Mieczyslaw Horszowski as a pianist and teacher is beyond dispute. That he lived a life of great length and activity is well known. I have come across a few published articles that explored one or another facet of his extraordinary musical and historical significance, yet little that gave a sense of the man. Indeed, he was many things to many people and many stories could be written. I have my own to set forth.

Before studying at the Curtis Institute, I began doing research into their faculty. Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski headed the piano department. Serkin was a house hold name, Horszowski a cipher – only professional musicians knew of him. Such people spoke of him with a hushed reverence. References to him in music books were frustratingly brief – no talk of anything outside his professional work. I sought out the few available recordings in the library which revealed a pianist that I could really love, playing solo and ensemble repertoire with equal authority and involvement. This struck a special chord as I’d studied as a child with Maria Safonoff, daughter of Vassily (an important Leschetizky pupil and teacher of Josef Lhevinne), and had known Edwine Behre and played often in the youth concerts of the Leschetizky Association. He was associated with a vast range of historically important figures – aside from Leschetizky and that circle, there was Ravel, Bergson, Szymanowski. Later as his pupil, I often begged for details of the legendary Casals-Schneider-Horszowski concert at the Kennedy White House. He would only say, “they prepared us a very good steak for lunch”, and when further pressed on the First Couple’s attitude: “Rose [President Kennedy’s mother]… Rose is a very cultured woman.” “And Jackie? Did you meet? What about Jackie?” “Rose, you see… she is a very cultured woman.” Living history, I later came to relish his stories of Granados, Bernhardt, Duse, De Pachmann, D’ Albert, Fauré, Isadora Duncan. . . all are burned in my memory and will be committed to paper at some later time.

Weeks after my letter of acceptance arrived from Curtis in April 1974, the secretary wrote that Horszowski would be my teacher and that for my first lesson I was to prepare Beethoven’s Sonata quasi Fantasia, Opus 27, no. 1. This lesson took place on a very humid and sunny September afternoon. Told I would find him in Vengerova’s old studio, I knocked, then knocked more insistently on the heavy old door. Eyeing his approach through the filmy curtain over the small diamond-shaped window, he swung wide the door. “You must be Mr. Rosenbluth.” (Big grin from him.) No one had ever called me Mister Rosenbluth! We proceeded to the pair of Steinway grand pianos. Finishing the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata, I looked towards him (Oh Spirit, give me a sign!) and he smiled, “Yes…let us work!” What ensued consisted of a few words here, a demonstration of the desired effect there, musical examples drawn from other works of Beethoven for comparison. A sour look might mean “too much pedal”, and a wishful entreaty would be perhaps an invitation to make more use of the pedal. He might come over to my piano to point at a small detail in the score, looking at me with great open eyes. Often, this pointing to a small detail exploded like the Big Bang into far-reaching understandings. As in psychoanalytic therapy, when one works through something and comes to an understanding, there is no going back. This would explain Horszowski’s rarely writing any notations in a score. With full understanding of a composition, instructions such as “get louder here”, “more arm weight”, “sweetly”, are superfluous, redundant and mess up the page. The understanding when it comes from within is truer and lasts a lifetime. In one of the more bumptious passages of the same Beethoven Sonata, Horszowski wanted more oomph out of me. He demonstrated, not caring about which notes he was playing, to show me the “feel”. I tried. Not enough. He escalated to get his point over (I was rather inhibited at the moment!) Finally, for nervous relief, I think, I imitated him, wrong notes, singing and all, while flopping my hands audaciously on the keys, watching him all the while. He positively beamed. “Yes! Yes, you see. Now you have it – of course we must also play the correct notes…” And then we went on.

How often the following scene would be played out: “Mr. Horszowski, what fingering do you use here?” He would know immediately where I meant (for the most part we did not talk about fingerings; “however the hand falls” was his general summation on that score) and he would quickly play the difficult passage on the other piano and draw his hand away from the keyboard, casting a rather arch look my way with a “you see…”. Naturally, I’d be caught off guard and have to ask for a repeat. Like lightning he would do it again. And again he would turn towards me, knowing that I didn’t catch it, waiting for my response. “Mr. Horszowski…” He would affect the manner of someone quite put upon and then, very slowly and deliberately and loudly, he would play the passage and yell out the fingers to play. He never tired of this ritual. Occasionally I had splendid opportunity to reverse the roles and he would look at me outraged. Horszowski was not a “nice” man. Casals described him as “thorny.” A good description. Of the many people around him during my years at Curtis, I knew of no one save myself who felt to speak with him in a simple conversational manner. Students were mostly intimidated, many imaging him to exist in some other-worldly state. I knew what a gift he was to music – his playing at best was as from another dimension, his teaching incisive, meaningful, and helpful. I knew by now much of his personal history but I wanted to hear it from him in his personal voice; I wanted to know more of him, his daily life. I had great respect for him – once I felt our bond, and it did take a while, I had a million questions.

When I first got to Curtis, after a week or so, my doorbell rang. It was Ben Pasternak, a Horszowski student, my senior. He explained that I was assigned to him as “little brother” i.e. the new student to be advised and helped by the older student. We sat around and I took in all his advice and admonitions. Ben told me that for Horszowski I must bring in a major work of a major composer, memorized, for each lesson. I must never bring in the same work more than twice. I must never waste his time with the music of Liszt, Scriabin, Scarlatti, but rather stick to the Three B’s and Schumann, Mozart of course.

I actually attempted to follow this diet. Midway through the year, I’d had it. All I was doing was sitting at the piano all day, cramming notes to memory, then dropping it for another, and so forth. I told Horszowski flatly that I would not continue in this manner, that there were other things to do in life aside from sitting pianoside, cramming; besides, at such a fevered pace, I was retaining very little. He appeared shocked that I’d thought he’d expected such. Ben’s advice cast aside, I began my own real exploration of repertory at my own pace, and it was magic. I played all sorts of composers for Horszowski and never failed to gain immensely by his interest, his joy. A special feature was that, should I play a work with which he was totally unfamiliar, we would work on it together and he was so easily read, one could see his mind at work, deciphering a new score’s language in the same way that he approached a classic. He loved Liszt and Scarlatti and the sons of Bach, Schoenberg, Bartok. In his later years he gravitated to the works of composers that meant most to him: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Szymanowski, Chopin. This in no way precluded his enjoyment of others’ music, nor his interest and desire to explore the entire keyboard literature with his students. He had always been a champion of music newly written as well as older music that he felt was unjustly neglected – the Prussian Sonatas of K.P.E. Bach and the works of his friend Villa Lobos, by way of example, fell into this category. I once brought in the Bartok Suite, Opus 14. He was excited, elated. He’d planned a recital for Carnegie Hall in the 1940’s including this very piece, rather unknown to the public at the time. I was impressed. He continued, “but my manager told me I could not program Bartok because the public thought him a ‘wild man’ and nobody would come.” “What did you do?” I awaited a heroic denouement, but got this: “So I played Szymanowski instead. I was pleased to play the works of my countryman.”

Once as I approached Rittenhouse Square I saw the unmistakable form of Mr. Horszowski turn the corner and approach dead-on. Big wool coat, beret, dark glasses, never gloves, muffler, heavy brown Oxfords. Of diminutive stature, his body seemed of a piece, inarticulated. As we converged he raised his hand to make a point: “The C major Fugue from the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier – so compact, so dense – it is a marvel of construction, you see. Play it!” I’d not even had the time to say good morning as he continued down the pavement. The abruptness of his comment left me disoriented but the content was understandable. He was proceeding with the recording of the WTC of Bach during this time. It was on his mind – he’d opened a little window for me to share his experience. I was finally somewhat disappointed with the finished recording. Beautiful and expert, yes – but, as in most of his studio recordings, it lacked the dash and daring of his live performance. Volume II was never completed. I understand that the record company [Vanguard] pleaded lack of funds and shelved it.

At Curtis we did get an occasional guest-artist in to lead a class. These were invariably, for one reason or another, useless. When the formidable Rosalyn Tureck was invited to lead a series of classes, she sat, gowned in some facsimile of historical Japanese garb, in one of the throne-like chairs used by tea-pourers at Wednesday afternoon “tea”. After half-time, she reappeared in another. Very imperious, Tureck didactically annihilated each student’s performance destructively. She spent much of the time promoting her series of “how-to” editions of Bach and whatnot. When I related these maters to Horszowski at our next meeting, he looked reticent to respond. After some thought, he mustered up some enthusiasm to say, “yes, you see… I always thought of Miss Tureck as a scholar moreso than as a musician.”

Gaby Casadesus gave some classes in French music. Rumor had it that Rudolf Serkin detested French pianism and invited her so that we students would come to detest it as well. I signed up to play the Suite in E minor of Rameau. Horszowski was not pleased by my “excessive” use of notes inegales in the Allemande. I truly considered his opinion and decided nonetheless that I liked what I was doing. “Would you prefer I do it as you want but with no feeling for it? Perhaps when I am in my eighties, I, too, will decry such blatant distortion.” He was abashed and responded, “You must do it as you feel it; however, I must insist that you tell Madame Casadesus that Monsieur Horszowski does not condone the use of notes inegales in the Allemande!”

One year, Serkin contracted pneumonia. To his wife’s horror, he was getting out of bed at all hours of the night in a quasi-delirium to play scales and arpeggios for hours on end. Horszowski was apparently more blasé on the issue of piano playing. “How much do you practice each day, Mr. Horszowski?” “Well, I get up at 6 a.m. and dress and go to the church at 7 a.m. Then I take the breakfast at Dewey’s – low salt, you see – then I read the newspaper. Time to teach my lessons. Then I go to Rindelaub’s for the lunch, excellent cookies. . . then another few lessons. Then I take the walk in the park. When I go home, I grill a little hamburger for dinner and watch the news. By then it’s late. I go to bed. I guess I do not practice very much.”

He seemed to have a charmed life, coddled by his mother, scuttled around the European Continent as a Mozartian-type prodigy; he turned away from music later to study art and philosophy – Casals had to “beg” him to return to the stage which, in the 1920’s, he did to universal acclaim. He seemed to play when and where and what and with whom he pleased. As his student, together we would play, listen, explore, consider, let our associations run free; I would wring stories from him, I would hear his magical playing – nothing else mattered. Now, I think I might press him less on musical matters and more on how he was able to play his K.P.E. Bach Sonatas and manage paying the rent while simultaneously dodging the effects of aging, losing friends and loved ones, illness. . . it sounded like a parent-child issue; indeed, it is very similar. Those of us who leave home and bond with a music teacher – this kind of relationship is special – it substitutes for much else. There was a gratefulness on my part for his presence in my life. Finding out which barbershop he patronized, his favorite soup, etc. helped me to appreciate him as a whole person. You must understand that his music-making and pianism were so divine. Had I not made it my business to know that he ate Reuben sandwiches and preferred Puerto Rican coffee, I might be among those who saw him simply as the lyric-breathing angel. Realizing his simple humanity raised him yet higher in my esteem, for when he played, I was indeed transported to another world entirely, and this by a man made of earth who could achieve such beauty! He had the conviction that what he was doing had meaning and it did, not only for him, but for all of us within his life.

Unlike the typical hero who reaches out to people, Miecio didn’t stress the issue. He was, rather, of the utmost sincerity and conviction, and he had the rarest of gifts to let it be known. He was absorbed in an ecstasy most personal; the beauty of it all for others was to have heard and felt it. ­Darrell Rosenbluth ©1999

Darrell Rosenbluth studied with Mieczyslaw Horszowski from 1974-79 at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He often performs solo recitals, in chamber music, and is Organist at St. Lukes, Woodhaven (New York), where he lives and maintains a private teaching studio. Rosenbluth is on the Board of Directors of the Leschetizky Association.