Obituary: Mieczyslaw Horszowski

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The Independent Online
Mieczyslaw Horszowski, pianist and teacher; born Lwow, Poland 23 June 1892; married 1981 Bice Costa; died Philadelphia 22 May 1993.

IT SEEMS inevitable that Mieczyslaw Horszowski will go down in history as the pianist who maintained an international career into his late nineties. This is the last thing he would have wanted. He was quite content to be thought of as the pianist who played chamber music with Pablo Casals. Devotees, however, regarded Horszowski as one of the great interpreters of the century, and worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Schnabel, Fischer and Cortot.

He was before the public for more years than any other musician in the history of Western classical music. In 1899 his Marche solonnelle was performed for the Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna. The official debut came in 1901, while he was still a pupil of Leschetizky, and, excepting a few years' retirement for study in the years immediately before the First World War, he was active in giving concerts until 31 October 1991, the date of his last recital in Philadelphia.

If one caught 'Miecio' Horszowski in the right mood he would reminisce freely about the musicians he had known in the early years of the century. It was at the then Bechstein Hall (now the Wigmore) in 1906 that he heard his first Debussy - the pianist was Fanny Davies - and after that he was privileged to attend a private concert in Paris at which the composer himself played several of his Preludes. Horszowski's recording of Children's Corner made for Nonesuch, dating form the mid-1980s, immediately became recognised as a classic account. Amongst those whom he knew and played for were Saint-Saens, Faure, Joachim, Ravel, Szymanowski and, particularly, Donald Tovey. Horszowski too established quite a friendship with Granados, who conducted a concert with the boy as a soloist.

Casals and Horszowski met initially after a concert at Milan in February 1906, although they were not heard playing together in public until the years after the First World War. The association lasted until the cellist's death in 1973. Horszowski told me that the most memorable and moving concert of his life was when, together with the violinist Sandor Vegh, the three of them gave a recital in the cramped confines of the Beethovenhaus in Bonn. Fortunately, it was recorded.

For many years Horszowski lived in Milan and took part in the city's rich social life: he played tennis, drove his car fast and developed a great fondness for climbing in the mountains. Although he was a devout Roman Catholic, the family had Jewish blood, and at the outbreak of the Second World War Horszowski was advised to settle in the United States. He had played in New York in 1906, but in 1941 made his orchestral debut there under Toscanini in a performance of Mozart's last piano concerto. Soon he became a member of the teaching staff at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, first as an assistant of Rudolf Serkin. He remained a faculty member until the end.

In the 1950s there were concerts featuring all the Beethoven sonatas, interspersed with sets of the variations; Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and the complete Mozart sonatas were similar projects. Thus he gained a reputation as being a somewhat austere musician with a repertoire centred on the classics. The impression misled people, for, as was evident from his concerts of the 1980s, Horszowski was virtually pre-eminent in Chopin - he brought to the music a polyphonic richness and tonal depth that made him the envy of his colleagues.

At 89 Horszowski surprised everyone by getting married for the first time. His wife, Bice Costa, herself a pianist, became his devoted and invaluable companion, and it was entirely due to her that he managed to continue with his career, especially since his eyesight began to deteriorate rapidly around the time of the union. The last years were spent divided between concerts and teaching in America during the winter months and touring from one venue to another in Europe during the summer. Murray Perahia saw to it that he came over to England for several recitals at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Wigmore Hall.

Despite his benign smile, Horszowski could be testy and extremely difficult. I prefer to forget all that and remember his sublime account of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations at the 1981 Lucerne Festival, and also sitting with him on a station platform asking me how many of the composer's Bagatelles I knew, and then, by way of a test, proceeding to sing (or rather growl) the first bars of every single one, much to the surprise of passers by.

(Photograph omitted)