Vladimir Horowitz: The Prodigal Returns

"I had to go back to Russia before I died," explains the last romantic

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Sporting a smart bow tie and clad in his best dark blue suit, the slender young man with carefully combed hair was nervous as he approached the border checkpoint. Officially, his exit visa was for six months' study in Germany, but he knew that he would not return. His leather suitcase was packed with six shirts, half a dozen butterfly ties, several pairs of socks and a formal cutaway suit. Hidden in his impeccably polished shoes, however, were hundreds of American dollars. In post-revolutionary Russia, he feared being imprisoned or shot for currency smuggling. But it was too late to worry about that. Confidence is the first rule, he thought to himself, reaching for his passport. Like Oscar Wilde, he would have nothing to declare but his genius.

Fortunately, the armed guards were music lovers. At once, they recognized the sensational 21-year-old pianist from Kiev who had had audiences from Moscow to Leningrad on their feet, cheering his pyrotechnical feats of pianistic derring-do. They gave only a perfunctory glance to his papers; instead, they crowded around him, rifles held casually, and pounded him on the back. "Now you go play for the rich over there and fill your pockets with money," one of them said. "But come back and play for us when your pockets are full. Do not forget the motherland."

Vladimir Horowitz never forgot. Last week, more than 60 years after that poignant admonition, he returned to the Soviet Union, to the rodina of myth and memory, the homeland of the soul that dwells in the hearts of all Russians, no matter where they live. "I have never forgotten my Russia. I remember the smells when the snow melts and the spring arrives," says Horowitz, 81. "I had to go back to Russia before I died. It brings an Aristotelian unity to my life, like a coda in music. It is the right time to go back."

It was a triumphal return. Not since those earlier expatriates Composer Igor Stravinsky and Choreographer George Balanchine visited in 1962 has the Soviet Union been so galvanized by a glimpse of a prodigal son. Keenly anticipated for weeks by Soviet music lovers, Horowitz's tour featured just two formal concerts, in Moscow a week ago and in Leningrad Sunday, before continuing to Hamburg, Berlin and London. The first recital provoked an unprecedented near riot. As the security gates in front of the Moscow Conservatory swung open to admit the pianist's chauffeured Chaika, hundreds of young people burst through the police lines and stormed the Conservatory's Great Hall. Plainclothes and uniformed guards managed to grab a few of them, sending several sprawling. But many, perhaps most, raced past astonished ticket takers and ran upstairs to the balcony, where they crouched in the aisles and stood shoulder to shoulder against the walls. In a country that takes special pride in preserving public order, romantic exuberance rarely overwhelms regimentation so publicly. It was fitting for the occasion.

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