Pianist Miecyzslaw Horszowski began to perform in public during the 19th century. He was, of course, a child prodigy.
At 94, Horszowski is no longer a child, but he gave a prodigious performance yesterday in the Jack Masur Auditorium of the National Institutes of Health, which should keep him around as a consultant on creative longevity.
Horszowski does not produce the kind of thunderous chords and lightning-fast runs that are the specialties of several hundred young hotshots these days. But that was never his style, and his range of tempo and dynamics is more than adequate for his repertoire, which includes some of the most musically demanding works ever composed. And he is the master of an art that flourished at the beginning of his career but has almost vanished in our time: the art of making a piano sing.
His selections from Handel, Scarlatti and Bach, in honor of their 300th anniversaries, sounded old-fashioned -- essentially romantic interpretations, with subtle dynamic shadings, exquisite legato phrasing and poetic expressiveness of a kind that ignored several generations of scholarly work on Baroque performance practices. But if anyone has a right to perform in that style (which should not be allowed to slip from our awareness), it is Horszowski. And the music was beautifully played; lines of counterpoint were etched with clarity in selections from "The Well-Tempered Clavier," and the music glowed with an inner fire too seldom heard in more "correct" performances.
The second half of the program was devoted to Chopin, whose music had been foreshadowed in some of the recital's 18th-century music. Here, Horszowski was completely in his element in small-scale but perfectly wrought interpretations notable for rhythmic freedom and superbly used shifts in tempo. It was an experience much too rare in an age when music sometimes resembles an athletic event.