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Candid glimpses of the incomparable Horowitz

Great Performances: `Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic' PBS, tonight, 9-10:30 p.m. (check local listings for premi`eres and repeats). Documentary portrait by Albert and David Maysles, and Don Lenzer. ``Do you think if I play Carnegie Hall, there will be people again - like before?'' asks Vladimir Horowitz in words still streaked with a Russian accent.

The legendary octogenarian pianist is in the back seat of a car on the way to try out a new piano in New York. Someone assures him the crowd will be lined up all the way to 94th Street.

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``They didn't forget me?'' A small tear runs down his cheekbone.

By the time this engrossing documentary is over, you realize such remarks - though heartfelt - are also feelers the great musician uses to test reactions. After playing a Bach-Busoni piece, for instance, he looks up at the camera as if for approval, seeming to say, ``I did it!'' There is a boyish uncertainty about him that adds a special poignancy to these personal glimpses.

This film - made in 1985 by those noted documentarians the Maysles Brothers and seen in Europe - is not a report and not a narrative illustrated with ``actuality'' clips. Nor is it a commentary-free documentary in the Fred Wiseman style. It is a composite of candid moments which appear to let the principals - Horowitz and his wife, Wanda, whose father was the great conductor Arturo Toscanini - operate pretty much on their own, prompted by an occasional off-camera voice.

The result is a program that is bouncy, full of humanity - and loaded with musical riches. Even if he's not the Horowitz of old, you can hear the vast perspectives and insights embodied in his playing. In 10 different performances, in fact, he lets you know this is definitely the musical giant who at ``retirement'' age has tied with Pavarotti in commanding the highest fees in classical music. Much of the production's 90 minutes is wisely given over to Horowitz's 11 musical offerings.

They are shot in his own home in Manhattan, making it seem to viewers like a privileged visit.

The camera offers some startling perspectives of his hands at work - from above, as Horowitz himself sees them - and from the side, and even from below! - as if recording some wondrous natural phenomenon. And when Horowitz himself looks down at his hands, it's as if he's examining a detached piece of machinery. ``Must get that wheel fixed,'' he seems to say of a missed note. Just after a piece, he smiles as if his playing were a sublime game, a contest of wits with the muses that he has just won. And he can't keep his hands off the keyboard - paralleling his talk of composers and performances with delightful running subtext of musical snippets.

Some of the resulting exchanges between Horowitz and Wanda are delicious. ``Then I did this one,'' Horowitz says as he reminisces about his recitals, dashing off a piano sample, ``and this one.'' He's supposed to be offering his next selection for the program, but his doodling is attended with respectful silence from all those around him - after all, this is Horowitz - except for his wife.

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``Will you stop, please!'' says Madame Horowitz, with a hint of her father's famous thunderous frown.

After another piece, someone tells Horowitz, ``There was so much color, each note.'' ``Even the wrong notes?'' asks Wanda.

``I don't want to have perfection,'' he answers, ``I'm not Heifetz, I'm Horowitz.''

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