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S48 Ep12

The Magic of Horowitz

Premiere: 1/22/2021 | 00:00:30 | Closed Captioning Icon

Experience legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s 1986 Russian homecoming for a sold-out concert of personal favorites, featuring commentary from former manager Peter Gelb and virtuoso pianists Martha Argerich and Daniil Trifonov.



About the Episode

Great Performances: The Magic of Horowitz, premiering Friday, January 22 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), delves into the story behind Horowitz’ virtuoso 1986 Moscow concert. The documentary weaves together concert footage, including intimate close-ups of Horowitz’ agile hands interspersed with the emotional audience reactions, historical context and original interviews with Horowitz’ former manager Peter Gelb (Metropolitan Opera) as well as composer Tatjana Komarova, violoncellist Alina Kudelevic and contemporary piano virtuosos Martha ArgerichDaniil Trifonov and Sophie Pacini.

Recent meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev provided hope that the Cold War was coming to an end, and Horowitz’ return to Russia was seen as a way to help open the door between the two superpowers. The concerts marked the first time in years that one of the world’s leading romantic pianists performed live on stage. Horowitz put together a demanding program featuring works by leading classical composers Scarlatti, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Schubert, Liszt, and Chopin, selected for their private meaning to him. Great Performances: The Magic of Horowitz spotlights this magnificent and historic performance.

This winter, Great Performances shines a spotlight on international music icons Maria Callas and Vladimir Horowitz with two concert documentaries exploring the stories behind the most remarkable performances of their lives, premiering Fridays, January 15 and 22, 2021 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), and the PBS Video app. Both films are introduced by Peter Gelb, currently General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, as well as Vladimir Horowitz’s former manager. In 1964, opera sensation Maria Callas hadn’t performed in more than two years due to her tumultuous personal life. Critics were concerned that she had lost her voice until she made her return with a sensational performance at Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. And more than 60 years since his departure from Russia, legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz finally made his homecoming return in April 1986 with a concert at the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.

Throughout its more than 40-year history on PBS, Great Performances has provided an unparalleled showcase of the best in all genres of the performing arts, serving as America’s most prestigious and enduring broadcaster of cultural programming. The series is available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video app, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast. PBS station members can view episodes via Passport (contact your local PBS station for details). Great Performances is produced by THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. John Walker is Senior Producer, Bill O’Donnell is series producer and David Horn is executive producer.

Great Performances: The Magic of Callas and The Magic of Horowitz are productions of Sounding Images in co-production with C Major Entertainment and ZDF/ARTE. Produced by Claus Wischmann, The Magic of Callas is directed by Holger Preusse; The Magic of Horowitz is co-directed by Preusse and Philipp Quiring.

Major funding for Great Performances is provided by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, Rosalind P. Walter, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, Seton J. Melvin, the Kate W. Cassidy Foundation, Jody and John Arnhold, The Starr Foundation, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, the Thea Petschek Iervolino Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, public television viewers and PBS.


♪♪ -Next on 'Great Performances'... In 1986 during the Cold War, piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz returns to Moscow for the first time in 61 years for the comeback performance of a lifetime.

-He had gone from a year or two earlier being completely unable to perform to playing one of the greatest concerts under pressure in history.

♪♪ -He's able to effortlessly produce colors of limitless variety.

♪♪ -Join us for a look back at this momentous moment in music and a glimpse at what defines the 'Magic of Horowitz.'

-He's the best lover that the piano ever had.

-I'm Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

If you wonder when I received my early training for dealing with opera's biggest personalities, the answer is in the 1980s when I was the 30-something manager of Vladimir Horowitz, arguably the greatest pianist of all time.

Horowitz was also eccentric to the extreme.

When I persuaded him to make his historic return to the Soviet Union in 1985 when the Cold War was showing signs of thawing, he turned it into somewhat of a Herculean challenge -- for one, he would only travel if his Steinway and piano-tuner were in tow.

The piano was also to be accompanied by a 24-hour Marine guard deployed by President Reagan, since Horowitz was convinced that the KGB would otherwise sabotage his instrument.

Reagan wanted the concert to take place as an initial step in a new cultural agreement between him and Gorbachev.

And Horowitz proclaimed that he would only go to Russia if his special dietary requirements were met, though at that time in Moscow you couldn't even find a fresh tomato -- except on the Black Market.

But Horowitz, who planned to eat only Dover Sole and asparagus for dinner for the rest of his life couldn't care less, since in his obsessive mind his intestinal survival depended upon it.

So it was up to the American Ambassador to mobilize his Western allies in the diplomatic corps.

The Italian Ambassador took on the responsibility of procuring the fresh asparagus from Rome, and the British Ambassador organized flights of fresh Dover sole.

Members of the American Ambassador's staff wore T-shirts printed with the legend 'Dover Sole Airlift -- Ground Crew' when they would meet the British Airways flights to pick it up.

In partnership with CBS News and some other international broadcasters, we had arranged to produce the historic concert live to the world, bringing with us a large television crew and our own satellite truck, which was regarded with deep suspicion by the Soviet authorities.

In fact, heavily armed KGB agents positioned themselves inside our mobile control room outside of the hall, presumably ready to take us out if we started transmitting something other than the concert.

Inside the hall, in order to capture the faces of the rapt audience, who were welcoming Horowitz backafter an absence of six decades, we had reversed the positions of the cameras so that the audience becamethe backdrop to the performance.

Horowitz, moved by his return to his motherland, played the concert of a lifetime.

In turn, the audience wept tears of joy.

I'm happy to share it with you in this excellent film that includes our 1985 concert footage.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -I get incredibly excited with his playing.

I cannot... It's something different. Yes!


♪♪ ♪♪ -The most amazing thing was the concert that he played, because he had gone from a year or two earlier of being completely unable to perform to playing one of the greatest concerts under pressure in history.

♪♪ ♪♪ -This kind of poetry that's incredibly fluid and organic.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ -In the mid-1980s, Moscow was the location of a legendary concert.

At this time, the walls between East and West remain insurmountable.

The Cold War is in full flow.

The two great powers of the United States and the Soviet Union -- as well as their allies -- view one another as enemies.

The nuclear arms race casts a shadow over the lives of all people.

-And usually by late in the evening he would be sort of talking wistfully about what his dreams or ideas were including perhaps going back to Russia, which I had discussed with him, but he was very afraid of the idea.

[ Applause ] But then along came this new agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev.

Because of this diplomatic agreement, I saw that as the opportunity to make this actual trip happen.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Speaking in German ] -In April 1986, Vladimir Horowitzreturns to his Russian homeland.

As one of those who left to make a life and career, he had not set foot in the communist Soviet Union for 61 years.

However, a series of artistic crises and bouts of depression meant that he had not performed in public for years.

For many, his appearance in Moscow is nothing less than a miracle.

-From my childhood, it was my dream to hear Horowitz in life.

I have got many records.

And now my dream will come true!

[ Cheering ] [ Lively conversation ] -He was the only person who had that kind of attention like a rock star, you know.

It was as if the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were giving a concert.

People would literally sleep all night on the street in New York to get his tickets.

And something similar happened in Moscow.

-[ Speaking in German ] -A single poster at the Moscow Conservatory was the only indication of the upcoming concert.

The authorities were unwilling to provide any publicity for Horowitz.

Yet still the people came in droves.

For these fans, Horowitz embodied the very freedom for which they yearned.

-[ Speaking in German ] [ Applause ] [ Applause stops ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -It's incredible poetry and musical freedom.

It's how he is able to effortlessly produce colors of limitless variety.

There is a lot of magic in his touch as well.

♪♪ And the way he never forces the key, even technically that's something that's incredible for the sound production.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -Horowitz always traveled with his piano, and Horowitz was a unique pianist and musician.

And we'll send the piano, you know, securely to Moscow and they'll be watching over Horowitz.

So sure enough within hours, a letter came from the White House to the Horowitzes from Reagan himself, signed by him, saying that he was going to personally be watching over the tour and that he was going to send the piano under the guard of the US Marine Corps, that the military of the US would personally transport the piano and watch it and Horowitz.

♪♪ He worried about many things, you know.

He was somewherebetween a neurotic and psychotic in his personal approach to life.

And one of the things that concerned him was what would happen to him if he returned to Russia.

He actually believed that he might be imprisoned even though it was 60 years later from his exodus.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Speaking in German ] ♪♪ [ Chuckles ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -[ Speaking in German ] [ Exhales sharply ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -At the time he played in Moscow, he was older and, you know, he did not have the strength that he had when he was in his 50s or 60s, so he had picked a very strategic program, I mean, sort of like the way Roger Federer has changed his game in recent years, where instead of having long rallies from the baseline, Federer, you know, makes every point over in three or four shots.

♪♪ -[ Speaking in German ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -Horowitz was a kind of very contradictory character because he on the one hand, you know, played like he had a direct connection to God, on the other hand, he acted like a two-year-old.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -It's wonderful. Pure beauty.

I love his expressionism! Wonderful!

I love his Mozart playing also. -Yeah.

-But not only. I love everything about him.

I am crazy about him. I was always.

[ Clears throat ] ♪♪ -[ Speaking in German ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -He has five different interpretations for everything and he puts them all on the same time.

I mean, it's such a richness inhis imagination, in his playing.

Such richness!

Gulda used to say, [ Laughs ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -His whole life was a series of ascents and descents, ascents into great artistic achievement and then descents into depression and madness.

♪♪ He started declining, and the peak of his decline occurred a few years after I became his manager when he accepted a fee of a million dollars to play a concert in Tokyo, which at the time was unheard of.

It was the highest fee in the history of classical music.

And he played this concert that was probably the worst concert he ever played and maybe one of the worst concerts in history in which he played more wrong notes than right notes.

And I thought that was the end of his career.

I thought he would never play again.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ I didn't hear from him for a year.

A year passed, and after a year, his wife called me up and said, 'You know, Mr. Horowitz is starting to play again.

He got rid of this doctor, he's no longer taking drugs, he's not drinking, he's not smoking, and he wants to perform again.'

-And then came the Moscow concert.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Speaking in German ] [ Both speaking in German ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ -[ Speaking in German ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -He had very close relations spiritually and personally with Rachmaninoff, for example.

One of the stories that Horowitz used to tell me, which was quite touching, was he would say that when Rachmaninoff was older, when he moved to America, Horowitz and he would privately sit and play four-handed piano concerts in their living room, and when Rachmaninoff, at his advanced age, would miss a note, Horowitz would miss a note too so that Rachmaninoff wouldn't feel bad.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -Everything was done to ensure that Horowitz felt comfortable on stage and behind the curtain, to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for him.

-He lived a life that was completely regulated by his own physical concerns.

He was worried that he would literally die if he didn't eat the right food every day.

And in those days, what it consisted of was having Dover sole for dinner every night and fresh asparagus and various other items.

So the British ambassador agreed that he would be responsible for the Dover sole, and the Italian ambassador agreed that he would be responsible for the fresh asparagus.

They all wanted to help this happen because it was it was leading to and later ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -Even this Polonaise, which became a victim of its own popularity, Horowitz makes it incredibly fresh.

So... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ In general the way how he plays it, he doesn't use a force, a purely physical force.

He was able to play only withthis part of a finger sometimes.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -His whole approach was to seduce the public, you know, to win them over and make them on his side, and he would go out and sit at the piano with no affectations, you know,he would just sit down and play.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -He knows how to listen to silence, like how to actually make this tension in the... the very pianissimo.

There is always tension going on somewhere.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -[ Speaking in German ] -[ Speaking in German ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -What Horowitz did was he selected a program that enabled him to reserve what he used to call the pyrotechnics -- that was his name for explosive technical playing -- that he would reserve those moments for strategic points in the program, typically in the last piece.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -He is the best lover that the piano ever had.

He's the best. Really.

[ Applause ] -I know it was something very special for him and he returned to America in his own way knowing that he had fulfilled kind of his destiny and that his life was complete.

-To find out more about this and other 'Great Performances' programs, visit, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

[ Applause continues ] ♪♪


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