Friday, November 23, 2012

Horowitz's Piano

I played on Vladimir Horowitz’s piano today.

When the great pianist died in 1989, Steinway & Sons decided to send Horowitz’s piano on tour, so that people can see it, touch it, play it. This week, the piano is “in residence” in Vancouver, and I got half an hour to play on it.

Few pianists, no matter how great their fame, are associated with just one instrument. Violinists and cellists travel with their own instruments, but the size of a concert grand piano makes such an arrangement just simply impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive. But Horowitz was the supreme artist among Steinway’s roster of concert pianists, and when he said he wanted a certain piano, he got it. And so, Steinway piano CD503 would travel wherever Horowitz travels or records. The piano, along with legendary Steinway technician Franz Mohr, were even flown to Moscow and Leningrad for Horowitz’s triumphant return to the land of his birth in 1986, where he played in front of a weeping audience.

Steinway & Sons keep a fleet of concert grand pianos for use by its artists, and Steinway Artists are promised a good instrument to play on wherever they perform, in exchange for the promise to exclusively use Steinway instruments. I have witnessed pianists breaching this agreement, but that’s another story…

The idea of a “Steinway Artist” began as a bit of a marketing ploy. When the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein toured the United States, he had an arrangement with the piano firm to use their pianos exclusively for his concerts – an early form of product endorsement. William Steinway probably never dreamt that the roster of Steinway Artist would grow to as long as it has. Today, there are Steinway Artists in every genre of music, from Alfred Brendel to Billy Joel.

So what was it like to have played on Horowitz’s piano? It is a very responsive instrument, although the touch was not quite as light as everyone said it would be. The piano still has a gorgeous sound – even though it is beginning to show its age a bit - and an incredibly resonant bass register. Of course, what made it so special is the fact that this was Horowitz’s piano.

There are some very fine piano makers today, in North America, Europe and in Japan. There are pianos that are more expensive than the Steinway. For me, the pianos of Steinway and Sons will always be the standards against which other instruments are measured. I will only say that other pianos, however finely made, reflect the beauty of the instrument, while Steinway pianos reflect the uniqueness of every artist who plays it. On a Steinway piano, every artist can truly live by the dictum – To thine own self be true.

I will always remember this encounter with this holy relic of music – the instrument touched by the hands of Vladimir Horowitz.

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