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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor Op.30 (1909) [43.07]*
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C Op.26 (1921) [29.54]
Van Cliburn (piano)
Symphony of the Air/Kyrill Kondrashin, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, May 1958*
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Walter Hendl, recorded Orchestra Hall, Chicago, October 1960
RCA RED SEAL LIVING STEREO SACD 82876 67894 2 [73.15]

 

Famed though they are these recordings, now appearing in SACD format, don’t seem to me to support the Van Cliburn Legend. Not having heard them for many years, and curious as to how the Rachmaninov would stack up against the Horowitz-Reiner, newly reissued by Naxos, I set aside preconceptions and listened with as much cool detachment as I could.

Tempos are relaxed and the piano is set very close in the acoustic set-up. This has the advantage of concentrating the ear closely on the pianism and Van Cliburn’s mechanism, though the inherent drawback is that of occasionally swimmy orchestral counter-figures. This is a live performance and there are some executant difficulties, especially in the first movement cadenza but otherwise Van Cliburn displays considerable command, though whether his placid-eruptive schema will appeal is an individual matter. Too much here is subject to moments of refinement and sudden over-dramatised theatre, as if he’s tempted to outsize gesture, part of the means being excessive rubati. Attractive and sensitively shaped, the slow movement is much better – note the fine string responses galvanised by Kondrashin – and in the finale Van Cliburn plays the full cadenza in the finale (unusually for the time) but it’s a movement in which he rather reverts to the attitude he adopted in the opening Allegro. Audience exultation is faithfully preserved but it’s moot whether because of the performance or his nationality.

The Prokofiev with Hendl is rather slack. It abjures the acerbic or acidic momentum that the composer displayed in his own London recording. The sound quality however is excellent, vintage Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 1960. The balance between instruments is well judged and the percussion registers viscerally. What doesn’t register as brightly is a real sense of the kinetic. It’s really only in the second movement, when Van Cliburn uncovers some otherworldly finesse and prodigious clarity of expression, that one is taken aback by his playing. In point of fact digital excellence is audible throughout – there’s a remarkable amount of detail that one can hear – but it comes at the expense of a lack of momentum

Both these performances are well known and both have been readily available in recent re-releases; the Prokofiev on RCA 09026 62691-2 and the Rachmaninov on Philips CD 456 748-2PM2. Should you wish to listen on the dual format here is your first chance to do so.

Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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