Today on Blogcritics
Home » Music » Playing Horowitz’s Concert Grand: Sandro Russo Shares Pianistic Intimacy and Historic Reverence

Playing Horowitz’s Concert Grand: Sandro Russo Shares Pianistic Intimacy and Historic Reverence

Pianist Sandro Russo's masterfully executed February, 2010 performance on the Horowitz piano, the Steinway Concert CD-75, available on DVD and obtainable through his website  this summer, features a wide span of – at its very core – ‘romantic’ repertoire, from the early 19th to the mid-20th century. The selection varies between more architectural, classically structured work, and the highly expressive and blazingly virtuosic.

Russo calls the CD-75 “a magic piano that can absorb every personal emotion the performer puts into the instrument, to which I found a connection so deeply, it made me feel secure to create my own sound world.”

The “romantic thread of sound and element of playing” was the most inspiring part for Russo. He says: “I have always been attracted to pieces that give you a world of contrast and strong dynamic mood changes. I am fascinated by the element of good and evil – as in opposing, dueling forces – and how these converge within a piece, coming to life at full range within the romantic repertoire.”

Parts of Russo’s very well balanced program, partly also available on YouTube, really ‘belongs’ to Horowitz, such as the iconic evocations of Horowitz’s historic performances. Examples of these include the beloved D sharp minor Scriabin Etude, his ravishing encore piece at his famous Moscow ‘comeback’ recital — a must in any representation of the master and his Steinway piano.

“The Scriabin is, of course, one of his most unique interpretations, showing his extreme versatility. Never sounding the same, with no definitive version, my interpretations certainly bear less of an improvisational genius and unpredictability, but perhaps more of an organic structure. I specifically also introduce classically inspired pieces, like the Mendelssohn, giving a more differentiated picture of how each composer should sound different according to the unique score, and regardless on which instrument it is being played. It is up to the pianist to find the unique balance between his investigations of each individual composer’s requests and the pianist’s interpretation thereof,” says Russo about his program choices.

Franz Mohr, an expert head technician at the Steinway Concert and Artist Department, who accompanied legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz on many of his concert tours between 1962 until the master’s death in 1987, talks about the specific Steinway sound in his 1992 volume, My Life with the Great Pianists:

”The need for more strength in pianos, to withstand the bravura-playing and virtuosity of the best artists was a challenge Steinway mastered marvelously. They strove to consistently build pianos which had both strength and fine tonal quality.”

And he continues: “The Steinway soundboard is the ‘soul’ of the piano. Constructed of close-grained Alaskan Sitka, Eastern seaboard or European spruce – a wood which has unusual stability and vibrancy under stress – the design permits complete freedom of movement, displacing a greater amount of vibrations into the air and thereby creating a richer and more lasting tonal response, as well as giving a tremendously wide range in tonal possibilities, from extreme pianissimos to super-forte.”

“In 1983, the first time Horowitz went to Japan for performances, we took piano CD-75, the one built in 1911 which I described as having just the right Spielart,” says Mohr [Spielart translates from German as ‘style of play’ or ‘way of playing’]. “When I found the CD-75 I knew right away that with just a little bit of work it would become the perfect ‘Horowitz piano’. He played it for a couple of years very happily, but then returned to his own 314503 Grand, which is the one we brought for his Moscow recital.”

The CD-75’s current owner, retired Steinway tuner Tali Mahanor, translated Spielart as “I like the way it feels, referring to how the action of the piano feels under your hands”.

Of course it is not easy for a young pianist to live up to a predecessor as legendary as Horowitz. Russo explains: “On this particular instrument, I of course felt a great ceremonial impact. What I had learned from listening to Horowitz had inspired me a great deal; but playing on this piano did not make me feel as if I were Horowitz, nor did I feel the need to imitate him or his mannerisms. It rather enhanced my own musical vision.”

About Ilona Oltuski

  • pianoguy

    Great article. But one correction should be made. The Scriabin Etude was not an encore at Horowitz’s 1986 Moscow recital. It was just the final piece of the first part of his program.

  • Hank Drake

    Horowitz did not play Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz at the Met program where CD75 was used. He played Liszt’s Ballade in B minor.