It was one of those spectacular events that one assumed would never happen. And so, apparently, did its protagonist, the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who had spent most of the 61 years since he departed from his native country declaring his bitter determination never to return.
Yet there he was yesterday, strolling out on the stage of the Bolshoi Zal of Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory, televised to millions around the world -- the prodigal son, the world's most celebrated pianist, finally returned.
In a way it was like any other Horowitz recital. He was dressed to the teeth in the standard "uniform," as he calls it -- the bright silk bow tie, the black cutaway coat, the gray striped trousers, the white shirt and white handkerchief at a rakish angle in the coat pocket. He flashed that wry little smile, took a courtly little bow and sat at the stool before his own Steinway, transported from New York for the event.
So far as the television audience was concerned, most of the time it could as well have been Carnegie Hall. CBS transmitted the entire two-hour concert on "Sunday Morning," with Charles Kuralt there in Moscow to anchor the show.
The great pianist was in fabulous form. What sets him aside from other pianists is that there are keyboard wonders he can summon that will not come often to others. An immediate example: yesterday's performance of Liszt's epic Sonata "del Petrarca" in E major, No. 104.
Washington audiences had heard a fine playing of this work only Friday night by no less a figure than Alfred Brendel. The difference between the two, however, is instructive. Brendel's statement of the main lyric theme was lovely. But what was heard yesterday from Horowitz in the same notes had an almost unworldly resonance that suggested Petrarch singing from out of the ages. Not even Rachmaninoff could quite duplicate that sound. One wonders if Liszt himself could have.
Time and again in yesterday's concert, Horowitz produced prodigies of both speed and power that were astounding.
And the massive sonorities of Scriabin's Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No. 12, coming as it did just before intermission, clearly left the listeners stunned (Horowitz had played it a day or two earlier at the composer's home for Scriabin's daughter). Two preludes by Rachmaninoff were similarly awesome in sound.
In a more chaste work like Mozart's Sonata in C, K. 330, or the opening trio of Scarlatti sonatas, Horowitz was transformed into another sonic world -- dazzling in its delicacy, its exquisiteness, its utter lack of needless force. I cannot think of any other player who can exceed Horowitz in the perfection of his trills and ornaments.
The concert ended with a breathtaking performance of that most nationalistic of Polish works, Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53. Surely the polonaise and the two mazurkas before it have a symbolic cultural significance that must have been as obvious to the Moscow audience as it was to those watching the concert from thousands of miles away.
The audience of about 2,000 in the hall provided some of the most fascinating footage, highly emotional. They were a very serious bunch, obviously conscious that this was probably the only time they would hear the greatest pianist, now 81, produced by their country since Rachmaninoff.
Concentration was intent in the beautiful hall, one of those late 19th-century acoustical glories, and every once in a while one would spot a listener nodding in admiration to a companion after a particularly magical moment.
People kept coming down to the edge of the stage to leave bouquets at Horowitz's feet, all of it done very quietly, as if something too ceremonial might mar an event that was too reverential to tinker with. Perhaps the most moving moment of all came during the first encore, Schumann's "Traumerei," when a camera froze upon a graying, middle-aged Muscovite sitting there staring forward with an absolute poker face, tears streaming down his cheeks.
As CBS Moscow correspondent Wyatt Andrews observed, this was a concert that "people will be telling their grandchildren about."
Any extraneous associations were eclipsed by the perfection of the overall event. Horowitz, the Russian audience, CBS (which extended "Sunday Morning" an extra 30 minutes) and even the sponsor, AT&T, which limited ads to six minutes out of a possible 24, gave us one of those experiences that was like we always dreamed television could be, and almost never is.