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Rare recordings of Vladimir Horowitz reconfirm his astonishing talent

One of the most tantalizing announcements to come out of the ever-dying classical music record biz came from Sony Masterworks a little while back touting a series of previously unreleased live recordings by Horowitz from the 1930s-'50s.

The pianist regularly arranged for his Carnegie Hall recitals to be privately recorded on acetate discs. In 1986, a stack of those treasures was donated to the archives at Yale University. The public is now getting its first taste of the magical music-making contained in that trove.

The first of three scheduled Sony releases contains Carnegie Hall performances of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in 1948 and Liszt's B minor Sonata in '49. Next up, due in September, is a program of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Balakirev; Jan. 2010 will see a Haydn/Beethoven disc.

The first issue is a stunner. It's hardly news that Horowitz was ...

a sensational keyboard artist, of course, but it's still a lot of fun to be reminded of that fact all over again. Although the sound quality on these recordings is not exactly pristine, the music-making comes through with a visceral impact just the same.

There is something wonderfully spontaneous about Horowitz' version of Pictures. The imagery in each movement leaps out of the speakers, from the spookiness of Gnomes to the electrifying build-up of volume in Bydlo, from the sparkling flurries in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks to the deliciously heavy atmosphere of Catacombs and Con mortius. And I don't think it's possible to make the Great Gate of Kiev sound any, well, greater than Horowitz manages here; this pianism is simply breathtaking in its sweep and richness of tone. The Liszt sonata likewise receives a majestic performance, brimming with tension and poetry. A riveting, revelatory experience.

Although you can question his stylistic choices, Horowitz nonetheless remains a benchmark of musical electricity. You can question his technique, too, I suppose.  Sure, he drops notes -- if you thought he only made mistakes in his later years, this recording will correct that impression. But even his messiest moments are more interesting and rewarding than much of what passes for keyboard brilliance now. Pianists today just don't play like this, think like this, grip like this.

Sony is off to a great start with this important series. I can't wait for the next installment.

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