Poulenc’s Toccata is hardly anyone’s definition of an easy piece – although it’s well laid out for the keyboard. Parallel passages become repeated notes, then right handed filigree accompanied by left hand chords & jumps, then right hand chords accompanied by left hand chromatic runs – there are gear shifts, sometimes radical, every few bars. I’ve heard about 15 recordings of the Toccata, by pianists major and minor – at corresponding tempos. They all have something in common – whenever the pianist has to shift gears, there is a pause, a hesitation - however infinitesimal - to allow the pianist time to regroup for the next sequence.
All except one: Vladimir Horowitz. There are at least three recordings of Horowitz playing Poulenc’s Toccata: a studio recording from 1932, a live recording from Carnegie Hall from the 1940s and available for listening at the Yale University music library, and a 1966 performance from a Carnegie Hall concert made when the pianist was 63 (the last has circulated as a pirate recording for years, but Sony has recently released their copy as part of a boxed set). Despite differences in interpretation, all three recordings feature breathtaking tempos, minimal use of the sustaining pedal, a broad dynamic range – and the most seamless, imperceptible shifting of gears. It’s the equivalent of driving a manual transmission without having to use the clutch – although in this case there’s no grinding and no damage.
I believe this is what Michael Steinberg was referring to when he complained that Horowitz was at times apt to “steamroll the line into perfect flatness” in his very wrongheaded – and now deleted – appraisal of the pianist in the Groves Encyclopedia. In fact, Horowitz merely was able to mask the gear changes that lesser pianists (and that’s just about everybody) were forced to make audibly. His transmission was infinitely variable.
But make no mistake: Horowitz infallible transmission was not merely the result of some accident of birth. He worked his ass off. More on that in a later post.