The remarkable Mieczyslaw Horszowski -- who made his concert debut in the final year of the 19th century -- played a beguiling piano recital Thursday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, before a standing-room-only crowd that repeatedly sounded enormous ovations.
Horszowski, now in his 93rd year, is a wonder. The character of his playing is little different from what it was when he was 70, or 50, or perhaps even 14, which was when the Polish wunderkind made his American debut at Carnegie Hall. The phrasing was always lucid, fresh, restrained and lovely. For sheer beauty of tone, few other pianists could even approach his standards -- whether it was the chaste, lean sound he brought to the opening of Bach's C-minor Partita; the rich, almost vocal legato in the nocturnal slow movement from the Chopin B-minor Sonata; the clean delicacy of the ornaments in Mozart's B-flat Sonata, K. 570; or the misty atmospherics of Debussy's "Children's Corner."
Perhaps the clearest testimony Thursday night to Horszowski's towering reputation was in the number of famous fellow pianists in the audience -- among them, Rudolf Serkin, Andras Schiff, Eugene Istomin, Seymour Lipkin.
Despite his deteriorating vision and hearing, it was astonishing how little of a toll age has taken on Horszowski's playing. Perhaps it is in part a result of the particular musical values held by the tradition he represents. The poetry of the music and of the enormous range of piano sonorities has always been more important than thundering and pinpoint accuracy. It is a style that often actually improves with age.
His Mozart sonata, especially, was a marvel. Articulation sparkled like diamonds. And dynamic and harmonic shading within phrases was gorgeous.
Above all, there hovered over the entire concert an exalted sense of going to the very core of what each piece was all about, a kind of spirituality. And that was no more sure than in the exquisite encore rendering of Schumann's little "Tra umerei" from the "Kinderscenen." At the magnificently controlled soft chords that end it, the pianist turned his head slightly to the audience with a beatific little smile -- as if to say that what they were hearing met even his standards.