ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Vladimir Horowitz was one of the greatest pianists of his day, and he quietly recorded all of his 1940s Carnegie Hall recitals. He meant them to be a private reference library to analyze with students and colleagues. Well, now a collection of those recordings has been released to the public.

Even after digital restoration, they're a bit scratchy, but the music is so powerful, says contributor David Was, that it demands our attention.

(Soundbite of piano music)

DAVID WAS: Classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz, in the 20 years since his death, has only gained in stature as one of the titans of 20th century music. As insecure as he was accomplished, he at once craved the public's rapturous attention then shunned it altogether.

Horowitz disappeared from the concert stage for a dozen years in 1953 and appeared only sporadically after that. And lo, these many years later, the "Private Collection," a set of Carnegie Hall performances from 1948 and '49, showcases the pianist's impressive gifts at mid-career.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Horowitz contracted a private company to cut lacquer disc recordings of all of his Carnegie Hall recitals. They are admittedly not high fidelity, but that's more than amply compensated for by Horowitz's muscular tone and vibrant orchestral palette.

He donated the acetates to the Yale University Music Library along with personal papers and — ever the sports fan — two baseballs autographed by major leaguers. He could be a heavy hitter himself, as evidenced in this passage from Liszt's "B Minor Sonata," which some critics say surpasses his definitive 1932 version.

(Soundbite of song, "B Minor Sonata")

WAS: Like many great artists, Horowitz suffered from extreme mood swings and even submitted himself to electroshock therapy in the 1960s to alleviate his bipolar symptoms. Later, he would try antidepressants but found that they severely impaired his ability to play music.

I'd like to think his so-called weakness was also his strength, as was Van Gogh's, and lent itself to his reputation as the ever-passionate last romantic. Untreated, the organic Horowitz of 1949 was capable of a blithe spirit, ever tinged by a sense of the tragic.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: But there is also unalloyed energy and joy in these recordings, especially when Horowitz is pulling off a brisk, virtuosic run. He achieved his gorgeous tone and singing, swinging sense of melody by keeping his fingers near to the keys, not lifting them off and striking the poor ivories as some showier pianists do.

I prefer the tone which is felt by the fingers, the pianist once said, and it is impossible to feel the note and also to strike it: a fine but vital distinction made by one of the 20th century's most compelling and consummate artists. His return is a welcome one indeed.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: David Was, reviewing "Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall - The Private Collection." You can hear more from that recording and find much more classical music at the new npr.org.

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