The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music question: How did pianist Vladimir Horowitz play octaves so fast? Take a look

June 12, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The story goes like this: Someone once asked virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz why he plays octaves so fast.

“Because I can,”” he is supposed to have replied.

Sounds like Horowitz, no?

Anyway, it is a questions a lot of pianist and piano students want to know, epsecially since Horowitz was one of the few greats, along with Glenn Gould, who played flat-fingered.

Myself, I always found Van Cliburn’s octaves in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1 just as electrifying as his. But Horowitz was the indisputable King of Octaves.

So, first: Here is a sample of Horowitz playing octaves as he would have — and did do — normally.

And now, here are some of the slow-motion samples you can find on YouTube of Horowitz playing octaves (the pitch and sounded has been altered with the video changes).

So here’s what so many pianists and others want to get a close look at, complete with commentary from other pianists and Horowitz himself playing Scriabin’s famous etude for octaves:

And here is his performance of Chopin’s octave etude — the supreme test of octave technique —  that Horowitz did in Japan:

And here is an except for the fiendishly difficult first-movement cadenza, ocmpelte with octaves and those trademark “elephant chords,”of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3:

There is more you can find at YouTube, including his flashy trashy “Carmen” Fantasy.

I wonder how I would react if I taped myself playing the piano and then played it back in slo-mo?

Would my fingers look like a race horse, as one observer remarks.

Could be reassuring.

But it would probably be scary bad and disheartening.

Have any one you done that or intend to do it?

What did you learn?

Anyway, happy viewing.

And happy practicing — especially your octaves.

What do you think was special about Horowitz’ octaves?

How do you think he did it? Wrist, arm or fingers?

Do you think he had a secret, or he just did it the right way you are supposed to and are taught to, only better?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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