The Vladimir-taming-the-lions phenomenon held a packed audience enthralled for more than two hours yesterday at Constitution Hall.
Do not mistake this characterization for a snide suggestion that there is something circus-like about a Vladimir Horowitz recital. It is to say rather that there is an element of challenge, and at times menace, in these extraordinary events that set them apart from the work of his pianistic contemporaries.
The lions he chooses to tame are compositions of great physical difficulty. They may be works of herculean digital complexity, as in yesterday's Schumann Humoreske or the Liszt Mephisto Waltz. Or they may be lyrical pieces of such simplicity that the interpretive treatment of every single note is so utterly exposed that faking is out of the question: The ravishingly phrased Liszt D flat consolation is an example.
The physical demeanor of Horowitz contributes much to the psychology of these events. He strides on stage, approaching the piano with a facial expression seeming to say that the instrument better look out. Once the work is complete, he greets the cheers with a pixieish smile that seems to say, quite aside from often profound musical considerations, that the feat was attained.
This psychology spills over into his program building, which seems calculated to keep the audience slightly off balance-and alert.
As in yesterday's recital, he will often start with a fairly obscure classic work, preferably of imposing technical demands. This time it was Clementi's C major Sonata-Quasi Concerto. It was a longish work of greater rhetorical extravagance than emotional depth and of such difficulty that few but Horowitz would take it on.
Next came one of the lesser-known big Schumann compositions, the Humoreske, Op. 20. Like some of the better works, this rhapsodic piece is unpredictably constructed, but, unlike the best of them, its poetry is not so consistent as to make the structure seem irrelevant.
Then, as the pattern goes, come intermission-to be followed immediately by a familiar emotional blockbuster meant to stir the audience. Yesterday it was that surging and rich piece of musical poetry, the Rachmanioff E flat minor Etude Tableau. Then, there was more Rachmanioff and finally the Liszt Mephisto Waltz. Talk about pyrotechnics and menace. The pianist was not satisfied just to play Liszt's own cascade of notes. He introduced some complexities added to the work by Busoni.
All was played with a grasp for sonority and a sure commitment to the music's mood, whatever the technical cost. Alas, there were a few wrong notes. But the Horowitz technique, as well as the Horowitz intelligence, remains in peak from as the Horowitz fingers reach their mid-70s.