Vladimir Horowitz: The Prodigal Returns

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

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With Samuel's business in Socialist shambles, it fell to the pampered Volodya to become the family breadwinner by hastily beginning his public career. "My father cautioned against doing anything mad. Madness was not having a good home filled with music, good food and good companions. Madness was depriving his children of what he felt they deserved. Madness for him was leaving Russia; the land was his soul and his heart. But he could send his son out and give the son his blessings because he believed music has no boundaries and no barriers."

After he went to the West, Horowitz saw his father only once more, in Berlin in 1936. The visit proved to have fatal consequences. Returning home despite the pleas of his son, Samuel was arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi agent; his fluency in German and his trip to Berlin were used as evidence against him. He was exiled to Siberia, where he died in 1939.

New York City, 1928. Sir Thomas Beecham, the prickly British baronet and conductorial autodidact, was making his American debut in a concert with the New York Philharmonic. So was Horowitz. Beecham was apparently not about to let some upstart, unknown Russian steal his thunder, even if the piece was Tchaikovsky's thunderous Piano Concerto No. 1. Horowitz was unable to speak English, but it was clear from the rehearsals that even a translator would be no help. "Beecham thought I was of no importance," the pianist remembers. At the concert, the conductor adopted an even more ponderous tempo than during the preparation. As the concerto progressed, Horowitz felt the audience slipping inexorably away, and it was clear that desperate action was called for.

So off he went. From the opening bars of the finale, Horowitz raced ahead with all the mad passion of a cossack charge. "I played louder, faster and more notes than Tchaikovsky wrote," he later recalled. Beecham tried to rally, but there would be no catching up. "I was doing it my way. He was doing it his way," says Horowitz. "On the first night, Beecham came in second." The pianist finished several bars ahead of the orchestra. The audience erupted in a frenzy. In the New York Times, Music Critic Olin Downes captured the intensity of the moment. "A whirlwind of virtuoso interpretation," he wrote, adding, "Mr. Horowitz has amazing technique, amazing strength, irresistible youth and temperament." At the next performance, Beecham got a measure of revenge, cutting short the ovation with a short speech while Horowitz cooled his heels.

New York City, 1932. In a golden age of conductors, one stood above all the others in popular estimation: the ferocious, dynamic, irascible Arturo Toscanini. It was inevitable that the paths of the world's most celebrated conductor and its fastest-rising pianist would cross. Intersecting them was Toscanini's youngest child Wanda.

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