By Sally Moore
May 27, 1974 12:00 PM

The tall man strode on stage and seated himself at a massive, black Steinway grand piano. The handful of spectators in the vast Cleveland hall fell silent. Vladimir Horowitz began a brief rehearsal for an astounding musical event—at age 69, his first public concert in five years.

He has retired and come back several times, most notably in 1965. The decision this time was typically mercurial: on a Monday he made the decision, announced it on Wednesday, and on Saturday he was in Cleveland’s Severance Hall for a performance next day.

The piano was his own—hoisted out of his fourth-story apartment in New York and carefully shipped to Cleveland at his insistence. Once convinced that the instrument was unaffected by the move or the humid weather, Horowitz plotted its correct location on stage. He was seeking perfect resonance. “Five inches can make a difference,” he said. He played a few measures of Clementi in one spot. Wrong. “I have muscles, I can push the piano, too,” he joked with the movers. He tried a Chopin polonaise in the new location, experimented with a few more until he was satisfied. From her center orchestra seat, Wanda Horowitz, who is the daughter of Arturo Toscanini, teased affectionately. “Come on, my beloved, talented, sensitive husband. Play the piano.”

The first bars of the Chopin Introduction and Rondo in E-flat-major, which Horowitz had never played in recital, filled the hall with a luminous, eloquent tone. At the end he dramatically dropped his head and hands onto the keyboard. “It’s difficult, you know,” he complained. “Russian pessimist,” Mrs. Horowitz called out. “He’s in top form and we’re all wrecks. If I didn’t have a sense of humor after 40 years, I wouldn’t be here at all.”

Absorbed in his own playing, Horowitz raced through more Chopin, laughing over a wrong note, listening to comments from the tiny rehearsal audience, leaving his piano reluctantly when his wife reminded him the rehearsal hour was over.

“I’ll admit I’m nervous,” he said, “but I’m not a neurotic—just high strung.” He said he gives so few public concerts because he hates to travel, not because he is a recluse. “I hate planes, trains, hotels and strange beds,” he said. “If the audience would come to me I would play every day.” At home in Manhattan or Connecticut, Horowitz still plays often for small groups of friends and family and teaches a few promising young pianists.

The Sunday concert did not disappoint the 2,000 who filled the hall. The New York Times critic called it “a typically flabbergasting Horowitzian show.” The audience gave him one standing ovation after another.

Horowitz seemed surprised and delighted. Perhaps he would extend his comeback with performances in New York and Washington? “You never know with him,” Mrs. Horowitz said with a shrug. “From here,” the maestro said opaquely, “we go home.”