Great Performances

S48 E12 | FULL EPISODE

The Magic of Horowitz

Experience legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s 1986 Russian homecoming for a sold-out concert of personal favorites, featuring commentary from former manager Peter Gelb and virtuoso pianists Martha Argerich and Daniil Trifonov.

AIRED: January 22, 2021 | 0:53:55
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

-Next on "Great Performances"...

In 1986 during the Cold War,

piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz returns to Moscow

for the first time in 61 years

for the comeback performance of a lifetime.

-He had gone from a year or two earlier

being completely unable to perform

to playing one of the greatest concerts

under pressure in history.

♪♪

-He's able to effortlessly produce

colors of limitless variety.

♪♪

-Join us for a look back at this momentous moment in music

and a glimpse at what defines the "Magic of Horowitz."

-He's the best lover that the piano ever had.

-I'm Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

If you wonder when I received my early training

for dealing with opera's biggest personalities,

the answer is in the 1980s when I was the 30-something manager

of Vladimir Horowitz,

arguably the greatest pianist of all time.

Horowitz was also eccentric to the extreme.

When I persuaded him to make his historic return

to the Soviet Union in 1985

when the Cold War was showing signs of thawing,

he turned it into somewhat of a Herculean challenge --

for one, he would only travel

if his Steinway and piano-tuner were in tow.

The piano was also to be accompanied

by a 24-hour Marine guard

deployed by President Reagan,

since Horowitz was convinced

that the KGB would otherwise sabotage his instrument.

Reagan wanted the concert to take place as an initial step

in a new cultural agreement between him and Gorbachev.

And Horowitz proclaimed that he would only go to Russia

if his special dietary requirements were met,

though at that time in Moscow

you couldn't even find a fresh tomato --

except on the Black Market.

But Horowitz, who planned to eat

only Dover Sole and asparagus for dinner

for the rest of his life couldn't care less,

since in his obsessive mind

his intestinal survival depended upon it.

So it was up to the American Ambassador

to mobilize his Western allies in the diplomatic corps.

The Italian Ambassador took on the responsibility

of procuring the fresh asparagus from Rome,

and the British Ambassador

organized flights of fresh Dover sole.

Members of the American Ambassador's staff

wore T-shirts printed with the legend

"Dover Sole Airlift -- Ground Crew"

when they would meet the British Airways flights to pick it up.

In partnership with CBS News

and some other international broadcasters,

we had arranged to produce the historic concert

live to the world,

bringing with us a large television crew

and our own satellite truck,

which was regarded with deep suspicion

by the Soviet authorities.

In fact, heavily armed KGB agents

positioned themselves inside our mobile control room

outside of the hall,

presumably ready to take us out

if we started transmitting

something other than the concert.

Inside the hall, in order to capture the faces

of the rapt audience,

who were welcoming Horowitz backafter an absence of six decades,

we had reversed the positions of the cameras

so that the audience becamethe backdrop to the performance.

Horowitz, moved by his return to his motherland,

played the concert of a lifetime.

In turn, the audience wept tears of joy.

I'm happy to share it with you

in this excellent film

that includes our 1985 concert footage.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-I get incredibly excited with his playing.

I cannot... It's something different. Yes!

Yeah.

♪♪

♪♪

-The most amazing thing was the concert that he played,

because he had gone from a year or two earlier

of being completely unable to perform

to playing one of the greatest concerts

under pressure in history.

♪♪

♪♪

-This kind of poetry that's incredibly fluid and organic.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

♪♪

-In the mid-1980s,

Moscow was the location of a legendary concert.

At this time, the walls between East and West

remain insurmountable.

The Cold War is in full flow.

The two great powers of the United States

and the Soviet Union --

as well as their allies -- view one another as enemies.

The nuclear arms race

casts a shadow over the lives of all people.

-And usually by late in the evening

he would be sort of talking wistfully

about what his dreams or ideas were

including perhaps going back to Russia,

which I had discussed with him,

but he was very afraid of the idea.

[ Applause ]

But then along came

this new agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev.

Because of this diplomatic agreement,

I saw that as the opportunity to make this actual trip happen.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-[ Speaking in German ]

-In April 1986,

Vladimir Horowitzreturns to his Russian homeland.

As one of those who left to make a life and career,

he had not set foot in the communist Soviet Union

for 61 years.

However, a series of artistic crises

and bouts of depression meant that he had not

performed in public for years.

For many, his appearance in Moscow

is nothing less than a miracle.

-From my childhood, it was my dream to hear Horowitz in life.

I have got many records.

And now my dream will come true!

[ Cheering ]

[ Lively conversation ]

-He was the only person who had that kind of attention

like a rock star, you know.

It was as if the Beatles or the Rolling Stones

were giving a concert.

People would literally sleep all night on the street

in New York to get his tickets.

And something similar happened in Moscow.

-[ Speaking in German ]

-A single poster at the Moscow Conservatory

was the only indication of the upcoming concert.

The authorities were unwilling

to provide any publicity for Horowitz.

Yet still the people came in droves.

For these fans,

Horowitz embodied the very freedom for which they yearned.

-[ Speaking in German ]

[ Applause ]

[ Applause stops ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-It's incredible poetry and musical freedom.

It's how he is able to effortlessly produce

colors of limitless variety.

There is a lot of magic in his touch as well.

♪♪

And the way he never forces the key,

even technically

that's something that's

incredible for the sound production.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-Horowitz always traveled with his piano,

and Horowitz was a unique pianist and musician.

And we'll send the piano, you know, securely to Moscow

and they'll be watching over Horowitz.

So sure enough within hours,

a letter came from the White House

to the Horowitzes from Reagan himself,

signed by him, saying that he was going to

personally be watching over the tour

and that he was going to send the piano

under the guard of the US Marine Corps,

that the military of the US

would personally transport the piano

and watch it and Horowitz.

♪♪

He worried about many things, you know.

He was somewherebetween a neurotic and psychotic

in his personal approach to life.

And one of the things that concerned him

was what would happen to him if he returned to Russia.

He actually believed that he might be imprisoned

even though it was 60 years later from his exodus.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-[ Speaking in German ]

♪♪

[ Chuckles ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

-[ Speaking in German ]

[ Exhales sharply ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-At the time he played in Moscow,

he was older and, you know, he did not have

the strength that he had when he was in his 50s or 60s,

so he had picked a very strategic program,

I mean, sort of like the way Roger Federer

has changed his game in recent years,

where instead of having long rallies from the baseline,

Federer, you know, makes every point

over in three or four shots.

♪♪

-[ Speaking in German ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

-Horowitz was a kind of very contradictory character

because he on the one hand, you know,

played like he had a direct connection to God,

on the other hand, he acted like a two-year-old.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-It's wonderful. Pure beauty.

I love his expressionism! Wonderful!

I love his Mozart playing also. -Yeah.

-But not only. I love everything about him.

I am crazy about him. I was always.

[ Clears throat ]

♪♪

-[ Speaking in German ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-He has five different interpretations

for everything and he puts them all on the same time.

I mean, it's such a richness inhis imagination, in his playing.

Such richness!

Gulda used to say, "Er ist ein Obergott!"

[ Laughs ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

-His whole life was a series of ascents and descents,

ascents into great artistic achievement

and then descents into depression and madness.

♪♪

He started declining, and the peak of his decline

occurred a few years after I became his manager

when he accepted a fee of a million dollars

to play a concert in Tokyo,

which at the time was unheard of.

It was the highest fee in the history of classical music.

And he played this concert that was probably the worst concert

he ever played and maybe one of the worst concerts in history

in which he played more wrong notes than right notes.

And I thought that was the end of his career.

I thought he would never play again.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

I didn't hear from him for a year.

A year passed, and after a year,

his wife called me up and said, "You know,

Mr. Horowitz is starting to play again.

He got rid of this doctor, he's no longer taking drugs,

he's not drinking, he's not smoking,

and he wants to perform again."

-And then came the Moscow concert.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-[ Speaking in German ]

[ Both speaking in German ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

♪♪

-[ Speaking in German ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-He had very close relations spiritually and personally

with Rachmaninoff, for example.

One of the stories that Horowitz used to tell me,

which was quite touching, was he would say that

when Rachmaninoff was older, when he moved to America,

Horowitz and he would privately sit

and play four-handed piano concerts in their living room,

and when Rachmaninoff, at his advanced age,

would miss a note, Horowitz would miss a note too

so that Rachmaninoff wouldn't feel bad.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

-Everything was done to ensure that Horowitz felt

comfortable on stage and behind the curtain,

to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for him.

-He lived a life that was completely regulated

by his own physical concerns.

He was worried that he would literally die

if he didn't eat the right food every day.

And in those days, what it consisted of was

having Dover sole for dinner every night

and fresh asparagus and various other items.

So the British ambassador agreed

that he would be responsible for the Dover sole,

and the Italian ambassador agreed

that he would be responsible for the fresh asparagus.

They all wanted to help this happen

because it was it was leading to detente and later perestroika.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-Even this Polonaise,

which became a victim of its own popularity,

Horowitz makes it incredibly fresh.

So...

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

In general the way how he plays it,

he doesn't use a force, a purely physical force.

He was able to play only withthis part of a finger sometimes.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

-His whole approach was to seduce the public,

you know, to win them over and make them on his side,

and he would go out and sit at the piano with no affectations,

you know,he would just sit down and play.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-He knows how to listen to silence,

like how to actually make this tension in the...

...in the very pianissimo.

There is always tension going on somewhere.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Cheers and applause ]

-[ Speaking in German ]

-[ Speaking in German ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-What Horowitz did was he selected a program

that enabled him to reserve what he used to call

the pyrotechnics --

that was his name for explosive technical playing --

that he would reserve those moments for strategic points

in the program, typically in the last piece.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

-He is the best lover that the piano ever had.

He's the best. Really.

[ Applause ]

-I know it was something very special for him

and he returned to America

in his own way knowing that he had fulfilled

kind of his destiny and that his life was complete.

-To find out more about this

and other "Great Performances" programs,

visit pbs.org/greatperformances,

find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

[ Applause continues ]

♪♪

STREAM GREAT PERFORMANCES ON

  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv

FEATURED PROGRAMS

Wyld Ryce
WQED Sessions
WLIW21 Specials
We Sing
Variety Studio: Actors on Actors
United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America
Under a Minute
UNC-TV Arts
Tree of Life: A Concert for Peace and Unity
Tis the Night with Ben Folds & Friends
Theater Talk
Theater of The Mind Radio Drama
The Set List
The Lowertown Line
The Jazz Ambassadors