TITLE: THE COMPLETE MASTERWORKS RECORDINGS
PERFORMER: VLADIMIR HOROWITZ
LABEL: SONY CLASSICAL
THE BOTTOM LINE: An epic set recalls the legendary pianist in his peak years.
Even the sturdiest reputations have a way of changing after the death of an artist. At the turn of the century Paderewski was considered a nonpareil concert pianist; in hindsight his slipshod technique and questionable musical taste consign him to a place among the keyboard's lesser lights. Perhaps it is too early to revise the conventional wisdom on Vladimir Horowitz, who up to his death in 1989 was widely regarded as the greatest pianist of the 20th century -- maybe of all time. Still, the release by Sony Classical of a 13-CD set of all the recordings Horowitz made for Columbia Masterworks from 1962 to 1973 (when he returned to RCA Victor) offers a happy opportunity to hear afresh Horowitz's brand of keyboard magic without the imposing presence of the man. Horowitz's Columbia recordings provide a distinctive but narrow view of his art. By the early 1960s, he had shorn himself of his reputation as a fire- breathing virtuoso, all flash and no substance. He began to deploy a wider, deeper repertory. The technique remained impeccable, but Horowitz made an effort to transcend his limitations and become a musician as well as a pianist. He succeeded as well as he could. He was not as cosmopolitan as his great rival Arthur Rubinstein, nor would he ever fool anybody into thinking he was Artur Schnabel, the apostle of German-style ''depth.'' The Columbia disks, all solo, are rife with puckish renditions of Scarlatti sonatas and Schubert impromptus that sometimes verge on eccentricity, and of Beethoven sonatas and Schumann fantasies that often threaten to collapse beneath their own structural weight. The highlight of the set is his 1965 Carnegie Hall concert, with a nervous Horowitz skirting disaster in the opening Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major before righting himself and going on to give one of the most thrilling live performances in the history of recorded sound. Another impressive recital is the 1968 television concert, which features Horowitz's best, most graceful reading of Schumann's gentle Arabeske as well as a thundering Scriabin Etude in D-sharp Minor. Horowitz continued to play for 16 years after he left Columbia, but his horizons never again expanded, while his coy mannerisms became more pronounced. By the time of his 1986 return to Russia, he had become a musical dwarf star, with an imploding repertory and an arch delivery that only occasionally approximated the youthful firebrand or the mature, thoughtful artist he had once been. The Columbia set records that brief moment when he put it all together and cemented his place in history. For now, at least.