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Vladimir Horowitz's Steinway piano: The magic is in the artist, not the object

By John Terauds on October 6, 2012

David Louie tries out Vladimir Horowitz’s Steinway CD 503 concert piano (John Terauds photo).

Just in time for to mark what would have been his 99th birthday on Oct. 1, fabled Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s favourite Steinway concert grand piano is in Toronto right now. I had a chance to spend 30 minutes with it yesterday, making me wonder how much of a great performance is due to an instrument.

Despite the fact that there are a half-dozen manufacturers that create top-level pianos, Steinway & Sons is the brand of record in the vast majority of the world’s concert halls, supplying instruments from factories in New York City and Hamburg, Germany.

The last five years have probably been the toughest for European, Japanese and American piano makers since the Great Depression, between concert presenters delaying purchases and inexpensive Chinese- and Indonesian-made pianos taking over the lower end of the market.

So Steinway — now not fully owned but run by South Korean piano giant Samick — is working extra hard to keep its name in people’s minds.

Steinway — like Bösendorfer, Fazioli, Bechstein, Blüthner, Yamaha and Kawai — would like us to believe that a great performance comes from a great instrument. It’s the same thinking that puts $10 million pricetags on Old Master violins.

Although it appeals strongly to that secret inner self that still believes in fairy dust and magic wands, reality is awfully prosaic: It’s the performer who makes a great performance.

But the better the instrument, the easier it will be for her or him to bewitch our ears and hearts.

Over he past few weeks, we’ve seen a lot about Glenn Gould’s Steinway CD 318 (the CD serial number is assigned to the company’s best concert pianos — not necessarily in the sequence in which the instruments are built). Many people would like to attribute the same kind of mystical powers of musical persuasion to Vladimiar Horowitz’s CD 503, manufactured in New York in 1941, two years before Gould’s, which was one of the last pianos to make it into production as the factory switched to making gliders for the war effort.

Unlike Gould, who was a one-piano (and one rickety chair) artist, Horowitz had several at his disposal, but CD 503 was his favourite, and would be winched out of his Manhattan apartment when the pianist went on tour. It accompanied him on his fabled return to Russia in 1986, six decades after he had left his homeland for Europe and then the United States.

Both artists were, in their own very different ways, legends. They had an unusual way of playing the piano that captivated audiences and record buyers. Both were uncomfortable on the concert stage (although Horowitz would, after periodic breaks, always return).

Most importantly, both always kept their favourite piano technician at their side, to make sure the piano was adjusted to suit their particular preferences.

Many people who know about these things believe that Gould and Horowitz were able to perform their technical feats because their pianos had been adjusted to have a lighter, faster action — meaning it would take less weight and movement to strike a key.

Unfortunately, there is no way we can actually recapture the exact state of either piano.

Gould’s was wrecked when it fell of a loading dock. It was rebuilt and tinkered with afterward, but it was not in concert condition any more. This is why Gould’s last recordings, including the 1981 Goldberg Variations, were made at a Yamaha piano.

Although the people at Steinway would have us believe otherwise, Horowitz’s piano may look like the same satin-black nine-foot concert grand he would caress before each concert, but it too is no longer the same machine.

The exterior clue comes from plastic keytops. A Steinway representative explained that the ivory surfaces had to be removed because U.S. Customs people no longer allow ivory to be shipped in and out of the country.

A peek under the lid revealed brand-new hammers and various associated parts.

A quick scale up the keys showed that the action was light, but not unusually so; this felt like a well-regulated concert Steinway, but hardly one that would enhance dazzling high-speed runs and arpeggios.

But it is a beautiful, rich-sounding piano, with a full bass and a profusion of interesting colours — actually, much prettier-sounding than what we hear on some of Horowitz’s recordings.

Wanting an expert opinion from a professional pianist, I invited Royal Conservatory of Music professor and ARC Ensemble member David Louie to put CD 503 to the test. He spent 20 minutes running through a range of Horowitzian repertoire, from the intimate to the bombastic.

Louie concurred that this is a particularly nice old New York Steinway that exemplifies the brand’s legendary warmth and power. He noted the shallowness of the key dip (how far down each key travels when pressed) which, for him, made it more difficult to express a wide dynamic range with his fingers.

Yet Horowitz was renowned for the particular care with which each note was coloured by his hands.

Louie pointed out that even a piano left to sit unplayed will change tone and feel according to the seasons. The felt and wood respond to changes in the environment and to the presence or absence of vibrations from the strings.

“We like to think that this piano somehow still holds a part of Horowitz’s soul as an artist,” Louie observed, smiling. “But, in the end, this is just an object; what made it special was Horowitz.”

In an interview a couple of years ago, American pianist Garrick Ohlsson was describing the art of finding the right concert piano. Often, top pianists are given two or three instruments to choose from.

“But when you listen to a pianist trying several pianos, you’ll notice that, no matter how different each one is, he makes each piano sound like what he sounds like,” Ohlsson observed.

That said, as long as we believe in magic, we’ll keep looking for the soul of a favourite artist in the everyday objects they touched — and someone will be there to make something of it.

Horowitz’s piano will continue to circle the globe in the service of Steinway marketing folk — and will, somehow, also fire up the imaginations of young pianists along the way. That’s a good thing.

CD 503 continues its residence at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Markham until Oct. 8, before moving on to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver over the next two months.

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Here is David Louie at Horowitz’s piano yesterday, sampling its palette of tone colours:

And here is the great Vladimir Horowitz himself in a range of pieces that show off the beauty of the sounds he could make, even in his 80s (he was 82 or 83 when he returned to Russia in 1986).

The B minor Sonata (K87) by Domenico Scarlatti is followed by Etincelles, by Moritz Moszkowski, both from a recital in Moscow in 1986. The third video is Franz Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat Major (D889) from a Vienna recital the following year, one of Horowitz’s last public performances:

John Terauds

 

 

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