A Meeting of Titans – The Day Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff Arrived Together at Steinway Hall

This is the story of three musical legends and a moment in New York in January 1928, when they were forever joined in history. The participants included the two greatest pianists of an era: the towering Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose romantic compositions and transcendent keyboard artistry captivated a generation; and Vladimir Horowitz, the fire-breathing virtuoso’s virtuoso, who had just arrived on these shores. Who was the third? Not a person, but a special place that remains a mecca for great artists and music lovers to this day: Steinway Hall.

It had opened in 1925 on West 57th Street, a large building with an exquisite rotunda, marble arches, elegant columns, and a dome ceiling. It is today an official landmark of New York City, and tourists still drop by to see the large paintings and sculptures from the Steinway collection that adorn the hall, the beautiful Steinway pianos on display, and the Waterford crystal chandelier that overlooks it all from the top of the dome. This, however, was actually the second incarnation of the celebrated attraction.

The original Steinway Hall on East 14th Street, which had operated in 1886 (after a delay caused by the Civil War), had been a superb performance space that seated 2,500 people. Noted for its classic, lavish interior and superior acoustics, it had played host to the New York Philharmonic and to many celebrity performers including Charles Dickens, who delivered readings of his works there in 1867 (to a sold-out house). It was the place to experience Steinway Pianos in New York. In 1877, audience even witnessed a scientific experiment on which music was transmitted by wire for the first time from New York to Philadelphia.

However, the original Steinway Hall closed in 1890 to make way for Carnegie Hall. Through today’s more modern Steinway Hall also offers space for small musical events, it operates mainly as a Steinway showroom and a location for executive offices; it also features a basement containing a wide selection of concert instruments from which a performing artist may select a Steinway for his or her next concert. It was the basement that played a dramatic role in this tale. When the two titans of the piano met and wanted to rehearse together, they needed to find two concert pianos in a private setting. It was only natural that they would head straight to Steinway’s treasure trove of instruments on the lower level of the Hall.

Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff had each suffered great losses in the Russian Revolution of 1917. “We lost absolutely everything,” Horowitz told author, radio personality, and Steinway Artist David Dubal, as reported in Dubal’s book, Reflections from the Keyboard. “In 24 hours, all we had we lost.” In 1925, he traveled to Germany and then to Paris, performing to tremendous acclaim. In Hamburg, he played the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto as a last-minute replacement for an indisposed pianist; conductor Eugene Pabst was so astonished by the power and speed of his playing that he left the podium to watch Horowitz’s hands. He had been booked to perform two recitals in small halls in Paris, but the response was so spectacular that he had to play five recitals, the last one at the Paris Opera. American concert manager Arthur Judson heard of him in Paris in 1928 and signed him up for a tour in the United States.

Horowitz made his American debut at Carnegie Hall in the Tchaikovsky First Piano, with Thomas Beecham conducting. Apparently Beechman, who was also making his debut that night, was completely self-absorbed, and unresponsive to the needs of his soloist. “I chose the Tchaikovsky because I knew that I could make such a wild sound,” Horowitz told Dubal, “and I could play it with such speed and noise. I very much wanted to have a big success in the United States.”

But Beechman’s tempos were too relaxed, and so in the last movement of the work, Horowitz, anxious to show what he had, made his move – like a thoroughbred taking off in the final stretch of a race. “I wanted to eat the public alive,” said Horowitz, “to drive them completely crazy. Subconsciously, it was in order not to go back to Europe…So in my mind I said, ‘Well, my Englishman, my lord, I am from Kiev, and I’ll give you something.’ And so I started to make the octaves faster and very wild.” According to The New York Times, “The piano smoked at the keys.”

Beechman tried to keep up, but he was taken by surprise and couldn’t quite make it work. Horowitz later said, without a hint of remorse, “We ended almost together.” The public found the pianist electrifying, and his American career was assured.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was in the audience that night, but he wasn’t pleased with what he had heard. Horowitz reported to Dubal that Rachmaninoff told him, “Your octaves are the fastest and loudest, but I must tell you, it was not musical. It was not necessary.” So Horowitz recounted the story of how the performance had unfolded, and Rachmaninoff began to laugh. “But Rachmaninoff could always find something to complain about in any performance,” said Horowitz.

Rachmaninoff was known for stern, dour persona – with a military-style haircut and perpetually unsmiling visage – though musically he could soar, carrying listeners away with music of intense romanticism and sweeping gracefulness. At the time of Horowitz’s arrival, Rachmaninoff was already well-established in the United States; he had arrived on Armistice Day in 1918, and had quickly set about making a series of recordings on Victor that were immediate successes.

Critic Harold Schonberg wrote that, “Only the very greatest vocal artists – a Lotte Lehmann or an Elisabeth Schumann – could shape a phrase with equal finesse and authority.” Rachmaninoff’s pianism was marked by a strong personality, incredible technical flair, and self-assuredness.

Yet, he had not set out to be a performing pianist. As a composer, he had shown tremendous talent early on: His first opera, Aleko, written while still in the conservatory, was considered groundbreaking. But with the revolution came the need to earn a living, and his own music, as well as that of others, soon became a showcase for his pianistic abilities. One of those compositions, his famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, became an albatross around his neck. He had been invited to England in 1898, where the piece was published under such titles as The Burning of Moscow, The Day of Judgement, and The Moscow Waltz, chiefly on the strength of that one hit.

Everywhere he went, people demanded to hear it. Critic James Huneker reported that it was still an audience favorite in 1918. “The Rachmaninoff ‘fans’,” he wrote, “and there were thousands of them in the audience, clamored for the favorite piece…But the chief thing is the fact that Rachmaninoff did not play it. All flapperdom sorrowed last night, for there are amiable fanatics who follow this pianist from place to place hoping to hear him in this particular Prelude, like an Englishman who attends every performance of the lady lion tamer hoping to see her swallowed by one of her pets.”

Horowitz was attracted to a very different work by Rachmaninoff: the formidable Third Piano Concerto – one of the most difficult musical works ever written. And Rachmaninoff had received word from virtuoso violinist Fritz Kreisler that “some young Russian plays [his] Third Concerto and the Tchaikovsky Concerto like nothing I ever heard, and you have to meet him.” So, the very next day after arriving in New York, Horowitz received an invitation from Rachmaninoff to visit him in his apartment.

The two wasted no time in becoming musical acquaintances. Rachmaninoff played Medtner’s Fairy Tale in E Minor for Horowitz. Then the two decided that if Horowitz was going to perform Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, perhaps the composer should give him some pointers. Off they went to Steinway Hall. Rachmaninoff played the orchestra part on one Steinway piano, while Horowitz played the solo part on another.

Rachmaninoff was genuinely impressed. “He swallowed it whole,” stated the composer. “He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness.”

The Rachmaninoff concerto became Horowitz’s trademark. His New York performance of the work, with the Philharmonic Orchestra, was broadcast over the radio. In fact, Horowitz made three recordings of it – “The first one I don’t count,” he confessed to Dubal. “It was on 78s, with Albert Coates conducting. They gave me only one hour and [a] half, and I couldn’t do what I wanted in such a short time.” Nevertheless, that recording remains a favorite many pianophiles.

The two musical giants remained friends for the rest of their lives. Horowitz case to be known as the pianist who “owned” the difficult Third Piano Concerto. And it all began in the basement of New York’s Steinway Hall.

Stuart Isacoff is author of Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization (Knopf/Vintage) and editor of the magazine Piano Today. He is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music.