(b ?Kiev, 18 Sept/1 Oct 1903; d New York, 5 Nov 1989). American pianist of Ukrainian birth. All previous reference sources give his year of birth as 1904: when Horowitz left Russia in 1925 his father had Vladimir's passport doctored to make him appear a year younger, thus enabling him to avoid military service. His birthplace is sometimes given as Berdichev, but Horowitz always claimed that he was born in Kiev. His cousin Natasha Saitzoff, in an interview in 1991, said that all four Horowitz children were born in the home of their maternal grandmother in Kiev; so even if the family lived in Berdichev, Vladimir would have been born in Kiev. In any case, he was living there as an infant.
His mother was his first teacher; she also taught his elder sister Regina (1900–84), who became a skilled pianist and teacher. At the age of nine Horowitz and his sister entered the Kiev Conservatory. His teachers were Vladimir Puchalsky, Sergei Tarnowsky (both pupils of Leschetizky) and Felix Blumenfeld (who had studied with Anton Rubinstein). After the Revolution, the previously well-off Horowitz family was impoverished. Horowitz started to give concerts, making his d?but on 30 May 1920 in Kiev. He then linked up with the violinist Nathan Milstein for concerts throughout Russia. In Leningrad during the 1924–5 season, Horowitz gave some 20 solo recitals of about ten programmes, establishing himself as the most prominent of the younger generation of Soviet pianists.
Leaving the USSR in 1925, Horowitz went to Berlin, where he made his d?but on 2 January 1926. Two more Berlin appearances and a performance in Hamburg of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto made his name known all over Germany. Extremely successful appearances in Europe followed. On 12 January 1928 Horowitz made his American d?but, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto with the New York PO under Beecham. Horowitz, who thought Beecham's tempos too slow, took his own tempo in the finale, throwing in a shower of octaves that astounded the audience. He was now internationally acclaimed as the most exciting pianist of the new school. He married Wanda Toscanini, daughter of the conductor, in Milan on 21 December 1933. From 1936 to 1938 he was inactive; this was the first of four retirements (the others were 1953–65, 1969–74 and 1983–5). Highly neurotic, Horowitz was plagued by feelings of inadequacy. He never succeeded in resolving his basic problem: was he living up to his potential? Was he a great musician or a mere entertainer? [not available online]
He returned to Europe after 1982, playing first in London, then Japan (1983), Paris (1985) and the USSR (1986). From 1975 to 1985 he was under heavy sedation from drugs prescribed by his psychiatrist. His playing suffered; it was often incoherent, with memory lapses and wrong notes. But he finally managed to regain his health and mental stability, and he played with serenity and joy during the last five years of his life. It was as though he felt he no longer had to prove anything. He died suddenly at home from a heart attack.
As a pianist he was unique. It was not only a matter of an awesome technique. At its best his playing had infinite degrees of colour, and a sonority that could well have been unparalleled. He could override the greatest orchestral fortissimo without ever banging. Above all he had a kind of high-voltage charisma that, in his time, could be matched only by Toscanini, Callas and Pavarotti. An element of neuroticism was almost always present in his playing; and, especially during the period when he was taking drugs in heavy doses, his playing could be mannered. But at all times he was widely considered the greatest living interpreter of Liszt, Schumann, Skryabin and Rachmaninoff. His repertory was predominantly Romantic, but he also swept audiences away with his performances of Scarlatti and Clementi. He introduced to America the Prokofiev Sonatas nos.6, 7 and 8, as well as the music of other contemporary Russians. He was never regarded as an expert in Beethoven and the Classical composers. Yet his 1932 recording of the Haydn E Sonata (no.52) has style, grace, bracing rhythm, incredible articulation and complete responsiveness to the lyricism as well as the music's architecture.
A future revisionist period may pay more attention to Horowitz's performances of Mozart, which many have derided as unstylistic. Towards the end of his life Horowitz returned to Mozart, a composer he carefully studied. He had memorized everything that Mozart ever wrote about performing practice, and tried to put those precepts into effect. His recordings of several sonatas, a few shorter pieces and the A major Concerto k488 were not generally well received. In recent years, however, it has come to be realized that Mozart style is not academic literalism. Rather (as Mozart himself explained in his letters) it demands freedom, a sensuous sound, a degree of rubato and faster tempos than musicians of the 20th century are generally willing to adopt. It could well be that Horowitz's flexible and expressive approach to Mozart will eventually be recognized as in some sense more authentic than the work of so many late 20th-century ‘authenticists’. In any case, the position of Vladimir Horowitz as one of the supreme pianists in history cannot be challenged.
J. Kaiser: Grosse Pianisten in unserer Zeit (Munich, 1965, 5/1982; Eng. trans., 1971, with enlarged discography)
R.R. Gerig: Famous Pianists and their Technique (Newton Abbot, 1976), 306–7
G. Plaskin: Horowitz (New York, 1983) [with discography by R. McAlear]
H. Schonberg: Horowitz: his Life and Music (New York, 1992) [with discography by J.M. Samuels]