The familiar ritual began at precisely 4:37 yesterday afternoon. Vladimir Horowitz, the legend in his own time, walked out of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall wings, onto the stage. The attire was his standard: dark morning coat, gray striped pants, the white shirt, the patterned bow tie with a touch of red. His stride was jaunty as ever, with one hand in a pocket. He did a sharp right-face at the Steinway, gave a slight, foxy smile, with a little bow.

It was the first time Horowitz had played in the Concert Hall. Though the setting was new, the stylistic details of the event were the same as at a Horowitz concert decades ago.

The idea is to establish a sense of the uniqueness of a Horowitz Event. The buildup suggests the electricity that is to follow.

What followed yesterday was indeed unique. Even at the age of 78, there is only one Horowitz, and probably no one has even come close since the death of Rachmaninoff in 1943. It's as if that particular brand of high-strung romantic temperament and audacious technique died with the czarist academies that produced both men.

The combination is something Horowitz always allows to build slowly. So he invariably starts with music chaste, elegant and rather dry--much the way a singer will begin with something baroque, to get the blood flowing and the system limber.

Yesterday we had six Scarlatti sonatas, played end to end. It was 25 minutes of some of the lightest, most delicately articulated playing I have ever heard from the piano. As he ages, Horowitz seems more interested in intimate effects; these six sonatas sounded like object lessons in how to play the piano with a minimum of percussive sound. Staccato notes, normally hit hard by the finger, landed like dew drops. The Spanish languor in the F-minor sonata was a model in how understatement can be passionate. It is hardly news that Horowitz has his quiet side, but it has rarely seemed so refined as yesterday.

The Chopin G-minor Ballade that followed is the other side of the Horowitz esthetic coin. Its opening octave was the first really loud sound on the whole program. The Ballade is one of those high romantic works that gives the illusion of developing from passion to ecstasy to some kind of sublime madness. Horowitz has just the sort of ripe lyricism and sonorous power to pull this off. The music was very broad, but did not lose tension. If anything, he communicated Chopin's nobility of expression more evenly than he did years ago when his playing was more high-strung.

After intermission, Horowitz was back to his introspective mode, with Schumann's "Kinderscenen," the work he has programmed most often in recent decades. When he doesn't play "Kinderscenen" he often excerpts the "Traumerei" segment as an encore. I can't recall a performance of the latter in which the tiny threads came together quite so logically and tenderly as yesterday.

At the end was one of the less known works of Horowitz's mentor, Rachmaninoff--his second piano sonata. The sonata is horrendously difficult, yet has never caught on; Horowitz is the only major player who programs it now, no doubt partly out of a duty he feels to ensure that it is heard. It is perhaps more convincing intellectually than emotionally. The performance was brilliant.

Afterward, Horowitz sounded uncharacteristically tired. He got through the encores quickly. The Liszt Third Consolation was very beautiful. The Chopin waltz that followed was charming. But in the concluding Scriabin D-sharp minor etude the legendary artist sounded like the wind was gone from him.