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

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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.”

When I invited Sandro to my house right after the recording of his DVD, he gave me a sneak preview of the recording, playing the beautiful Sonneto on my old Hamburg Steinway O Grand Piano, an instrument that has not been played by Horowitz, but, nevertheless, by some very spirited pianists, including Sandro Russo. He then shared the story of his very personal connection to Horowitz with me, and also told me about his personal experiences with the Steinway CD-75 during the recording process:

“I was 12 years old; I heard a tribute to Horowitz in my native Sicily, which was broadcast from the White House in Washington. I was so impressed with Horowitz’s virtuosity, which had a very special intimate quality and, at the same time, was so very luminous and lyrical.
His tonal inflections of colors and unlimited range of sound, reaching from whispering pianissimos to the most volcanic fortissimo outbursts, still brought out the most intricate details – like hidden truths never unearthed before. This revealed the wisdom of musical understanding to me, something I had been longing for during that most impressionable time of my life. It was at this point in time, that I decided to pursue music as my vocation and profession.

I particularly remember his Chopin Polonaise Fantasy from his Royal Festival Hall performance in London, or Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz from his Met Recital.

I had listened over and over to these recordings, which – as I much later discovered – were both played on the CD-75. I had always wondered, what kind of qualities Horowitz, who evidentially knew exactly what sort of sound he aimed for, would look for in a piano.

Then, in 2006, I had my first personal encounter with this instrument, which already held great significance for me. Tali Mahanor, who I met and befriended in 2000, had become the owner of this glorious instrument, and she had a remarkable story of her own to tell. I already got to play the piano briefly once at her workshop and was taken by its beauty and individuality. Each note had a special color, with an almost unpredictable yet inspiring quality of sound, and an almost striking personal flavor, which defeated further categorization. It was now residing at the Connecticut home of a mutual friend of Tali and me, Maureen Walsh. A music lover and collector of fine instruments, she opened her home to me for the recital and DVD recording, in March 2010.”

Every Steinway is identified by its model number; the CD-75 carries the number 156975. This serial number makes it possible to track an instrument’s path. Tali Mahanor found out that after Horowitz/s death, the piano was purchased by Juilliard teacher Adele Marcus. Later on it ended up in the Steinway showroom’s storage, then went on loan to pianist Lang Lang. The Steinway Company eventually sold the piano to retiring Steinway tuner Tali Mahanor, who had fallen for the instrument, having taken care of its heart and soul for many years. With Sandro Russo the story of the famous CD-75 has come full circle.

Says Russo: “I have found an instrument that can communicate everything I hope to be able to express in my program, thus once more connecting my sentiments and attachments to an historic area of piano playing.”

Ever since I met pianist Sandro Russo at the home of my neighbors, Pierra and Peter, I had followed many of his performances. His ravishing Chopin Grand Polonaise at the Meisel Gallery in Soho, New York particularly stands out in my memory. Among the evening’s guests was composer Lowell Lieberman; Russo had been performing both the US premiere of Lieberman’s 10th Nocturne (2007, in New York) and the Worldwide Premiere of his Etudes on Brahms Songs, op. 88 (2009, in Atlanta). Here was a sensitive pianist whose ‘grand’ style reminded me of the traditions and splendor of the ‘Golden Age’ of the piano.

He must have made a similar impression on Terry McNeill, producer of the Concerts Grand Series at Santa Rosa Junior College in California. In his review of Sandro’s performance in April 2010 he says:
“Recently pianists (e. g., Schiff, Fellner, Biss) have been playing the Sonata and especially the concluding Allegro ma non troppo in an 'architectural' style, emphasizing structure and inner thematic relationships over passion. Mr. Russo would have none of this, seizing the emotional drive and sweep of the movement and bringing the audience to its feet with the final fortissimo chords. The piano would have been hot to the touch as he left the stage amid cheers.”

In 2008, Sandro had the opportunity to play and record another historic instrument, the 1862 Bechstein Piano (#576), formerly owned and played by Franz Liszt himself.

When on display at the Bechstein Showroom in New York for its first ever American tour, Sandro commenced his performance on a modern grand, appropriate for the pyrotechnical works of his program. He then introduced the 147-year-old ‘grande dame’ with Liszt’s Consolation No.3; later, he recorded a selection of his encore program on the instrument.

After most of the guests had left the Bechstein showroom that night, I stayed on with Sandro and was able to play my favorite Liszt piece, ‘Un sospiro’ on the squeaky-sounding instrument that, nevertheless, made me able to relate to the historic connection of the instrument.

In her interview with Russo about the recording of the Liszt piano, Maria Thompson Corley remarks on Broad Street Review: “…the Liszt piano had never been recorded or even used for public performance after Liszt’s death, so such unprecedented access was special indeed.”

Sandro remembers: ”It had to be approached as an extraordinary chance to present Liszt’s museum piece of a bygone era and make it come alive in our hearts. I felt very excited about the marvelous opportunity to immortalize such a historical event for this piano, and, most of all, to come into closer contact with my most beloved master’s sound world.”

Being very much at home with the ‘Golden Age’ of the piano does not preclude an interest in contemporary compositions or lesser-known repertory of various eras for Russo.

Arthur Sato quotes Russo in his 2009 NY Rising Star interview as saying: "There are many works that didn’t have the superstar musicians to get famous, but still they are wonderful in quality… I am very interested in the contemporary music of composers, especially those who are pianists, because they really know how to write for the instrument. Also, because I feel like I am part of the same living tradition…"

Sato concludes: “The best part of being a classical musician or performing artist is taking part in the lineage, history and tradition of the art and its practice.”

Whether playing on the antique Liszt piano, or the Steinway CD-75, Sandro Russo conveys his love for music with great sensitivity and spirited passion. Add to that his deep understanding for the historical context of his endeavours, and the term ‘living tradition’ is very much alive, indeed.

Track Listing:

Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

  • Andante Cantabile and Presto Agitato.
  • 19 variations serieuses, Op.54

Chopin (1810-1849)

  • Nocturne in D-flat major Op.27 no.2

Liszt (1811-1886)

  • Sonetto 104 del Petrarca

Medtner (1880-1951)

  • Tale in C minor Op. 8 no.2

Scriabin (1872-1915)

  • Etude in C-Sharp minor Op.42, no.5
  • Etude in D-Sharp minor Op. 8 no. 12
  • Sonata no. 4 in F-sharp major. Op. 30

Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

  • Waltz from 2nd. Suite for Two Pianos op. 17 (transcription by Vladimir Leyetchkiss, world premiere recording)
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About Ilona Oltuski

About GetClassical – Positively Personal Performance Welcome to GetClassical – a platform for classical music enthusiasts, offering information about today’s classical music scene through our blog posts and connecting new audiences to GetClassical’s concert events. Music Journalist and founder of GetClassical, Ilona Oltuski, (member of MCANA) is thrilled to announce a new season with a variety of great performances by upcoming and arrived musicians, of great caliber. Some, you will have heard here first, some are household names within New York’s vibrant music scene – but all collaborations are based on close relationships with the artists and appreciation for their great, musical talent. GetClassical continues its relationship with WWFM whose broad spectrum of listeners we would like to welcome for another exciting season of broadcasts. We produce events of a great variety, performed at different venues: from cabaret star Adrienne Haan’s Carnegie Hall’s debut at Weill Recital Hall, to world renowned cellist Mischa Maisky and friends, at LePoisson Rouge. Art lovers will experience music in their favorite environment: Soho’s art gallery Louis Meisel. Our monthly series at the very intimate, downtown Jazz Club Zinc Bar, right in the heart of New York City’s downtown nightlife scene continues, while we are looking forward to a new collaboration for a GetClassical Salon series, with Yamaha Artists Services, at their newly renovated showroom. Classical music has a great tradition, but musicians realize the importance of reaching out to a wider audience, and to create a fresh outlook and enthusiasm to classical music. What makes our concerts special is the actual concert experience: GetClassical creates a very personal and relaxed environment that encourages people – with a glass of wine in hand – … to celebrate talent, the way it used to be celebrated when classical compositions of the day, represented the newest talent on the block. It’s in this spirit of community building and artistic interaction; we also welcome visiting guest artists to the stage. Jazz musicians have always encouraged “jamming” together – we will extend this friendly gesture to the classical experience, adding an element of excitement and surprise. You will definitely have the opportunity to meet the artists, up close and personal – we bring the after-party to the concert.
  • 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.