Listening to the RCA concert recordings of Vladimir Horowitz made during the spring of 1980 in the Sony Classical collection Vladimir Horowitz: The Unreleased Live Recordings 1966–1983, one gets the feeling that age is beginning to catch up with the pianist. It is important to remember, however, that 1983 is not necessarily a landmark year in Horowitz’ life. Nevertheless, it may have marked the beginning of his move away from RCA, since he signed with Deutsche Grammophon in 1985 and made both studio and concert recordings with that label until the year of his death, 1989. Ironically, Horowitz: The Last Recording was a Sony Classical release; and it was distinguished by the fact that the entire content consisted of pieces that Horowitz had not previously recorded. This leaves the impression that he never lost interest in exploring new repertoire, even up to the end of his life.
Nevertheless, where concert performances are concerned, by 1980 one is more aware of signs that Horowitz’ technical house is not quite as ordered as it had been. Of course Horowitz was never an icon of technically precise execution; but, in fairness, this was not a priority for his generation of pianists. If notes were dropped, he could distract from their absence with any number of rhetorical flourishes; and there is nothing demeaning in asserting that his priority was the spirit, rather than the letter, of the text. Still, over the course of the three 1980 dates in this Sony Classics collection, April 13 at Symphony Hall in Boston and May 4 and May 11 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, it is hard to overlook slips that arise in the more flamboyant passages.
It is also worth noting that, for these concerts, Horowitz returned to familiar ground. Once again, the major work on the program was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 (second) sonata in B-flat minor, the sonata that Horowitz had played throughout 1968 to mark the 25th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s death on March 28, 1943. However, in 1980 this sonata occupied the lion’s share of the music that Horowitz played after the intermission.
In the first half he continued to work with a coupling of music by Muzio Clementi and Robert Schumann. However, these were more modest selections. The most adventurous was the Schumann Opus 111 set of three “Fantasiestücke” compositions. Composed in 1851, not long after Schumann brought the young Johannes Brahms into his home, these pieces seem to reflect back to 1837, which Schumann composed a set of eight pieces with the same title (Opus 12) and his free spirit was exploring the bipolar nature of his personality. Horowitz does not explicitly explore that connection; but he does follow Opus 111 with two of the four Opus 23 “Nachtstücke,” which have their own dramatic overtones with bipolar suggestions. The Clementi selections make for an even shorter portion of the program, an Adagio sostenuto from his pedagogical collection Gradus ad Parnassus and the concluding Rondo from the second (in E-flat major) of the Opus 12 set of sonatas. (It is probably also worth observing that Horowitz took far few encores in 1980 than he had done in previous seasons.)
Thus, while 1980 was probably too soon for Horowitz to think about the end of the road, there is more than a slight suggestion that he was beginning to ease up on his pace.