Horowitz is considered among many to be the greatest pianist of the 20th century. Two major influences during his early years were Toscanini, who shaped his intellectual respect for the composer’s intent, and Rachmaninoff, who, with his cerebral approach to Romantic music, curtailed Horowitz’ powers of virtuosity and helped hone his technical and temperamental gifts.
His repertoire was vast. His interpretations of Scarlatti are a lesson in the transference of harpsichord music to the Steinway grand. He employed a large set of dramatic dynamics and the pedal is used ingeniously, in “washes, dots, and dashes.” He used remarkable piano fingering precision and spacing of notes.
Having grown up during the decline of Russian Romanticism, “pure” Bach was not to his taste. But his recordings of some Bach-Busoni chorales were played perfectly.
He recorded Classical composers of the eighteenth century, including two Haydn sonatas, four Clementi sonatas, a rondo movement, five Mozart sonatas, five sonatas of Beethoven, Czerny variations, and a Schubert sonata. He never played much Brahms.
His recording of Haydn E-flat Sonata was pianistically the finest ever made. His Mozart interpretations were highly inflected and Romanticized. He understood Clementi historically yet played with stylistic freedom. Of Beethoven he preferred the early and middle periods. His Schubert in general was reported to be erratic, tight instead of expansive, and overblown. His early Chopin recordings were simple and refined. Later, however, his Chopin playing was often shredded and nervous, according to some critics. His Nocturnes were heavy, dense, and musky, Lisztian in style, and passionately Horowitzian.
Horowitz was most identified with Listz. His Liszt has been accused of being narcissistic. However, John Browning wrote, “In Horowitz’s playing, many people hear the speed, they hear the glitter, but they don’t hear the ten voices working at once, all separately, and they don’t hear the incredible way Horowitz can unify a work that really has no structural unity. They don’t listen to the beauty of the colors, so they hear the wrong things.” Horowitz’s playing always evoked an orchestral instrumentation, but unlike many pianists who play orchestrally, he never left his audience longing for the actual orchestra so completely did he understand the instrument and its sonority.
Horowitz at his most stupendous was found in his performances of the Russian literature. The Tchaikovsky First Concerto was described as “kicking the turf like a stallion at the gate.” His recordings with Toscanini were steel-edged and controlled by strength and raw nerve.
The most controversial of his recordings is the Mossorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, which Horowitz substantially amplified to bring out what he felt the composer really wanted to say pianistically.
In his recordings of solo pieces by Rachmoninoff, he concentrated on the epic side of the music more than even the composer himself ever did in performance. His freedom of phrasing was exquisite. If Horowitz related well to Rachmoninoff’s music and pianism, he was even closer spiritually to the mercurial and mystic impressionism of Scriabin and was said to bring to life the composer’s flickering, flamelike spirit, and supercharged nervosity.
In the French literature, Horowitz has made a small but good contribution. His efforts included Faure, Poulenc and Debussy.