The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: How good is Horowitz’ Mozart?

September 19, 2010
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

I was talking the other day with The Piano Teacher.

The subject was Mozart’s piano sonatas. I was trying to figure out which one I should learn to play. They’re good, most of them, but not as good or as appealing to me as the piano concertos.

They always feel treble heavy and bass light to me – except for the great C minor Sonata – and kind of tossed off by the supremely gifted and overly prolific Mozart (below).

We also talked about who plays the sonatas well.

Yes, of course there is Alfred Brendel, who adds improvisations and variations. Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff also come to mind. I also like Ingrid Haebler, who recordings are unfortunately hard to find and should be reissued.

And then The Piano Teacher said: “And don’t forget Horowitz. People underestimate his Mozart.”

It gave me a start. After all, The Piano Teacher can be quite fussy about his likes and dislikes when it comes to interpretations of Classical repertoire.

A lot of critics have accused Vladimir Horowitz (below) of being much too Romantic and eccentric or uneven is his approach to Mozart. They say he used too much pedal, too much rubato, too much flexibility in his tempi, too many accents and too much loudness or variations in dynamics.


Always it’s too much of this or too much of that. But then Horowitz was like that. Too much.

“But,” continued The Piano Teacher, “I like Horowitz’ Mozart. He completely gets the opera thing.”

By which he meant that Horowitz knew how to make Mozart’s lines sing like an aria out of the opera, and he also knew how to play up the kind of drama you expect from a Mozart opera – and Mozart’s operas are the key to all his work.

You could even argue that the prominence Horowitz often gives the left hand makes his keyboard Mozart like a vocal duet.

So I listened to some of Horowitz’ Mozart again over the past few days.

Horowitz (below, at his last concert, in Hamburg) turned to Mozart late in his long life, after he spent most of his years exploring the great Romantic repertoire along with some “moderns” like Prokofiev.

He also played and recorded the Sonata in C Major, K. 330 at the famous Moscow recital. He also included the Sonata in B flat, K. 333, and the early Sonata in B-Flat major, K. 281. He also recorded two rondos, a late adagio and the Concerto in A major, K. 488.

It was, I believe, Horowitz who once quipped you should play Chopin like Mozart and Mozart like Chopin – by which I think he meant that Chopin needs to be clear, not overpedalled, and that Mozart needs some flesh and blood in order not to be pristine or brittle.

And to be fair, Horowitz doesn’t play what I call “music box Mozart. ”I tend to like his full-bodied approach, though I also think he at times overdoes it.

But all in all, Horowitz treats Mozart as an important and beautiful composer, not just a charming composer.

So in the end I find myself agreeing with The Piano Teacher.

Here’s an example — and there are plenty more on YouTube. See what you think:

Now, the only question is which sonata should I play?

Anyway, what do you think of Horowitz’ recordings of Mozart?

Do you like his approach?

Why or why not?

What are your favorite Horowitz performances or recordings of Mozart pieces?

And what is your favorite Mozart piano sonata to listen to?

To play?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Posted in Classical music

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