August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

With her slim, 5’1″ figure, she has been likened to a hummingbird at the keys, so it was with some trepidation that pianist Ruth Laredo decided to record the entire solo repertoire of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Not only would the diminutive Laredo be the first U.S.-born pianist to attempt a complete recording, but she would have to grapple with the awesome fingerings of the 6’4″ Rachmaninoff, whose pieces indulged in 11-key stretches and long, thunderous arpeggios. The physical demands proved strenuous. Laredo recalls, “After practicing I had to get my hands massaged. My whole body ached—my shoulders, back, legs, even my feet. And he just kept asking for more!”

“Training with Rocky,” as she put it, has paid off. With the last of her seven Rachmaninoff albums now released by CBS, critics have lauded her for standing up to the Russian’s most grueling flights of romanticism while maintaining her own clear-headed control of the scores. Stereo Review even rated her refined interpretations above those of Vladimir Horowitz, a Rachmaninoff specialist. Says RCA’s Thomas Shepard, who commissioned the Rachmaninoff albums for CBS in 1973, “Ruth is one of the world’s great pianists. Period. She doesn’t have to get any better. She just has to get better known.”

Born in Detroit in 1937, Ruth Meckler very early showed she had the makings of a minidynamo. At 2½, she jolted her piano teacher mom by pounding out God Bless America on the family Stein-way; at 10, she was playing Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto with the Detroit Symphony. And, adds her father, Ben, a retired high school English teacher, “She could outrun any kid on the block.” Eminent pianist Rudolf Serkin was likewise impressed. Hearing her audition, he pronounced, “I can see you play like a tiger.” Intent on studying with Serkin, Ruth got her chance by winning entry to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1955. Among her performing mates was a pudgy 14-year-old violin marvel from Bolivia, Jaime Laredo.

Meckler and Laredo quickly became regular playing partners and for a long while kept their eyes on the music. (“He was only 14!” exclaims Ruth, who was 17.) But by the time Jaime, at 18, won Belgium’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition, their friendship had eased into romance; a year later they married.

At first, with her husband’s prize-winning career in full swing, Ruth readily took to the role of Jaime’s accompanist, claiming, “I felt a great responsibility to him and his artistry.” With the birth of a daughter, Jennifer, in 1969, Ruth cut back her touring. When she resumed, Jaime agreed to equal billing. Then, just as their dual careers were catching stride, he announced he was quitting the 14-year marriage to join hands, and bows, with a young cellist, Sharon Robinson.

“I was in shock—I didn’t even want to go on living,” Ruth says. But she subsequently realized “it was time to stop being Mrs. Anybody. I am me now.” She learned to drive and to balance her checkbook, and to support herself she took a teaching job at Yale. In 1970 her first album of the mystic Russian composer Alexander Scriabin won her a “Year’s Best Recording” award from Saturday Review. But it was Shepard’s suggestion of the Rachmaninoff cycle that finally turned her around: “The task was so huge, it was more than the music. I knew it was sink or swim.”

Her buoyancy safely assured, Ruth and Jennifer, now 11, share a spacious West Side Manhattan apartment and spend more time listening to Barbra Streisand than the Russian Romantics. Ruth’s divorce has left scars. “The men I date are not musicians,” she declares.

Laredo has just finished editing the first volume of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes (her Baldwin grand is littered with pencil shavings). This fall she goes on tour; a new record of Ravel works comes out sometime in 1982, and then more recitals. Too much for a hummingbird to handle? “I’m like Rocky,” she says, meaning the boxer as much as the composer. “I figure if I can keep up the stamina and courage, I can go the distance.” Some people would say she already has.

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