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Horowitz in Russia

In 1986, near the end of the Cold War, Vladimir Horowitz, then 82 years old, agreed to return to the Soviet Union for concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. The performance was recorded on video. PBS’ Great Performances draws on this historic video for the documentary “The Magic of Horowitz,” which was broadcast on Jan. 22. The program also is available for streaming, here.

Concert videos are one of my favorite genres — often more entertaining than movies. But this one is extra special, because it’s an important little piece of Cold War history as well as a glimpse of Russian culture, as the camera frequently moves around the hall to catch the responses of the audience. They adored Horowitz. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev arranged the concert, as the U.S. and Russia moved toward détente.

The camera often watches Horowitz’ hands on the keyboard. Musicians will want to take note of Horowitz’ unusual hand positions — wrists low, fingers often almost flat. This is not how pianists are taught to use their hands. At times, Horowitz’ hand positions look almost amateurish and awkward. One wonders how he did it.

The documentary is narrated by Peter Gelb, who was Horowitz’ manager. Gelb has interesting stories about Horowitz’ personal peculiarities, such as what he ate, as well as Horowitz’ recovery from a dark period in which he never played in public.


  1. Thomas Woolsey wrote:

    I streamed this the other night. I saw this when it was originally televised. The audience response is remarkable. My eyes were moist several times throughout the performance. Just extraordinary. I really have no words to describe how emotionally powerful his playing was. To think he was 82 when this was filmed.

    Saturday, February 6, 2021 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Thomas: Yes. Also, this performance really makes me miss the magic of the concert hall. How lucky it would have been to have been in that hall! And, if I’m not mistaken, the original PBS broadcast was live, was it not?

    Saturday, February 6, 2021 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  3. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Thanks for this. I remember watching this presentation. I was too moved by the Russian people were at times crying or brought to tears

    Sunday, February 7, 2021 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Thomas Woolsey wrote:

    I do think it was live. My memory suggests that the concert took place shortly before Chernobyl and a performance scheduled for Kiev was cancelled as a result. But my memory is tricky these days and this could be wrong.

    Monday, February 8, 2021 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  5. JamesM wrote:

    Brilliant video. Haven’t seen in years. The Russian school of piano playing emphasizes flat fingers. Physically it doesn’t make sense but musically it works. I had a colleague who studied with a famous Russian teacher. His fingernails scuffed, scratched, and scarred the fallboard something awful. The Russians tend to sit lower. I couldn’t do it but the proof is in the pudding. There is a great 60 Minutes interview with Horowitz and his wife, Wanda Toscannini Horowitz. It’s terrific also.

    Thursday, February 11, 2021 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    Hi James: I replayed part of the video to see if his hands were more rounded for the Scarlatti. Yes, I would say, though there are still times when the fingers of his right hand seem to be almost bent backwards. Anyway, I wonder if the Russian technique of flat fingers is particularly suited to Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. 🙂

    Friday, February 12, 2021 at 8:39 am | Permalink

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