For me,” Vladimir Horowitz said in 1975, “playing the piano is the easiest thing in the world. It’s all the things around playing that drive me crazy.” In similar fashion, Horowitz always astonished listeners with his effortless power as he sat at the keyboard—and drove everybody crazy by his approach to his work. His fingers flew faster than the eye could see, and the notes flowed forth in great rippling surges that sounded, as one critic observed, “like controlled thunder.” Offstage, the eccentricities of “the Thunderer” revealed other compulsions for precision. He would play only on Sundays at 4 P.M. On tour, he brought along a cook who everyday provided chicken for breakfast and dinner and gray sole for lunch. He used only his own beloved Steinway, which was lowered from the second-floor window of his Manhattan town house to travel with him all over the world. He broke concert engagements, underwent shock therapy for depression and retired four times. But during a career of 65 magical years, none of that really mattered. At his death last week at 86, Horowitz may have been the greatest pianist of his century.
Born into a musical family in the Ukraine, Horowitz began piano lessons at 3 and, at 22, launched himself into the world with a two-year tour of Europe. Married for 56 years to conductor Arturo Toscanini’s daughter Wanda, under whose stern hand he produced 150 albums, Horowitz came full circle in 1986, returning triumphantly to Leningrad for the first time in 61 years for a concert whose recording brought him the last of his 23 Grammys. To the end, some found his electric interpretations stylistically arrogant, but Horowitz had a reply. The trick, he said, was in playing more than the notes, in finding “the music behind those dots.” It was the Thunderer’s wizardry to make everyone hear the unimagined music he found in that empyrean.