Even with the rise of jazz and pop music during the period, the 1920s and 30s was a time when performances of classical music, both live and on radio, drew enormous audiences in the United States. Of the many composers, conductors and performers who became household names during this era, none made a bigger splash than a young pianist from Kiev named Vladimir Horowitz. From his first U.S. performance on January 12, 1928, Horowitz established a special bond with American audiences—a bond that would make him the best known and most beloved pianist in his adopted country for the next 60 years.
Horowitz was not the primary draw for the concertgoers attending his debut at Carnegie Hall. The headliner that night was Sir Thomas Beecham, acting as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The dynamic Beecham—”crouched like a panther, ready to spring upon a piece of counterpoint the instant that its head projected from its lair”—drew raves in the next morning’s New York Times review. But it was the young Russian pianist playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 who clearly stole the show. The Times‘ Olin Downes was reserved in his assessment of Horowitz’s artistic promise: “Very possibly Mr. Horowitz is a great musician as well as virtuoso….But he has that to prove.” But the critic left little doubt about the impact on the audience of the young man who “caused most of the intermission to be occupied in applauding and cheering him and calling him back to the stage. It has been years since a pianist created such a furor with an audience in this city.”
What that initial review referred to as Horowitz’s “electrical temperament, his capacity for animal excitement” was the basis of harsh critiques that followed Horowitz throughout his career. American critic and composer Virgil Thompson saw Horowitz as an artless panderer, a “master of distortion and exaggeration.” But there could be no denying the effect of Horowitz’s playing both on audiences and on musicians of future generations. On the occasion of Horowitz’s death in 1989, the American pianist Emmanuel Ax offered an assessment that was probably shared by the audience in that first American concert 61 years earlier: “He brought the idea of excitement in piano playing to a higher pitch than anyone I’ve ever heard….There was the sense of an unbelievable energy being harnessed, and the feeling that if he ever let it go, it would burn up the hall.”