Historical interpretations of Friderick Chopin works

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Mieczysław Horszowski - skill characteristics


Mieczysław Horszowski was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and long-lived artists. He began as a "child prodigy" and continued his active career on stage till the end of his life. As a pupil of Henryk Melcer and legendary Theodor Leschetizky, he combined romantic tradition with deep-rooted sense of duty to the art, which was reflected in his responsible attitude towards performances, both on stage and on his records.

Mieczyslaw Horszowski was not a virtuoso, who struggles for popularity to win great admiration of audiences due to his amazing technique. Instead, he focused on the most accurate articulation of composer’s thoughts included in his works. His interpretations were based on deep intellectual reflections and excellent knowledge of the score. The most distinctive features of his playing were simplicity and clarity of expression.

The National Library collection includes studio recordings of the artist issued by Nonesuch (1988-1991) and live performances from the Festival de Prades (1986) published by Lyrinx. On these four CDs there are such Chopin woks as Mazurkas (in C major and B flat minor, op. 24, in B minor, op. 33), Preludes op. 28 (in F sharp major and D flat major), Nocturnes (in B flat minor and E flat major, op. 9, in B major, op. 32), as well as Impromptu in F sharp major, op. 36.

What draws listener’s attention from the first notes of these recordings is his unique tone, which was considered to be the pianist’s trademark – clear, equally soft in reflexive piano and fast forte passages. After one of Horszowski’s concerts Radu Lupu recalled, Never in my life had I heard a quality of sound that would go around the hall and come back to me – it was as if I were listening to some kind of magical quadraphonic record.” Fortunately, his magical tone survived on records and may be still admired.

Another characteristic of Horszowski’s art is his outstanding cantilena, present in abundance in Nocturnes and two nocturne-like Preludes. Naturally shaped melody flows without any pompous or theatrical gestures. Dynamic contrasts are never abused and they are derived from logical narrative (e.g. Nocturnes in B flat minor and B major).

One of the best examples of Horszowski’s mastery is Prelude in D flat major with all “distinctive features” of his art. From the first bars he demonstrates ideal understanding of Chopin’s dolce cantabile and tempo rubato. Moreover, his interpretation provides undeniable proof that Chopin’s melodics is of vocal origin. It is worth mentioning that in his rendering this Prelude is not just a simple sketch, but coherent and logical mini-poem. Its middle choral part is a perfect demonstration of numberless dynamic gradations. Unlike numerous pianists Horszowski avoids strong contrasts and gradually, consistently creates the mood of mystery rather than horror. His interpretation is not a kind of an eye-witness statement. Instead, he tells a story of unrevealed mysterious events from distant past.

Discussing recorded legacy of Mieczyslaw Horszowski it is impossible to disregard his tempo rubato. Andras Schiff confessed: "I learned a great deal about rubato from Horszowski, because he uses it in a way that’s like Chopin must have done: he never loses the pulse, and yet it’s played with great freedom. " It is refined, well-balanced and may be found in all of his Chopin recordings – not only in Prelude in D flat major, magnificent Nocturne in E flat major, op. 9, or Mazurkas. Radu Lupu seems to get to the point saying: "He had a sense of rhythm that was comparable to a heart beating. " There is nothing to add.

Listening to Horszowski’s recordings one may come to a conclusion that as it was with Josef Hofmann he looks at Chopin "from some distance" and puts this music in "quotation marks", emphasizing its "past nature" [Wierzbicki]. It is well articulated in his renderings of Mazurkas, which are not played literally as dances with leaps, like in Friedman’s performances, but as narratives of dances (Mazurka in C major).

There is at least one more interesting feature of Horszowski’s art – realizing Chopin’s signs put in his scores (e.g. in Prelude in D flat major or Nocturne in B flat minor) does not affect his freedom of narration. He neither flaunts his erudition like a scholar nor delivers lectures on Chopin. The listener becomes a witness of creating new work, which does not have its final shape or form and emerges “here and now”. Andras Schiff recalled, “It’s as though he had written the music himself. It’s unbelievably unpredictable, and yet it’s completely natural, and comes from within the composition.” It is all in Impromptu in F sharp major.

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