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Van Cliburn: Concert Pianist
Disc 1 (DVD Video):

Documentary, Van Cliburn – Concert Pianist [58’17].
Disc 2 (CD Audio Disc):
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)/Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Widmung, S566 (1848) [4’04].
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Etude in E, Op. 10 No. 3 (1829-32) [4’47]. Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39 (1839) [7’15].
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Étude-Tableau in E flat minor, Op. 39 No. 5 (1916/17) [5’17]. Prélude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [4’51].
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

L’Isle joyeuse (1904) [6’42].
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Intermezzo in A, Op. 118 No. 2 (1892) [6’12]. Waltz in A flat, Op. 39 No. 15 (1865) [2’00].
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S514 (1859-60) [10’49].
Van Cliburn (piano).
DVD + CD; DVD: English Narration; French and German subtitles available. Dolby Digital 2.0. Picture Format 4:3. DVD 5 PAL.
RCA LEGENDARY VISIONS 82876 58241-9 [58’17 + 52’02]


This is a magnificent meeting of media. The first disc presents an hour-long documentary on the legendary Van Cliburn, while the second is a 52-minute recital of breath-taking expressive and technical scope.

The documentary first. It is riveting from first to last, including many clips of the pianist, plus a fair amount of big names revealing their feelings about him. Leontyne Price turns up a few times (with troublesome lip-sync occasionally), as does Marilyn Horne and Gergiev’s favoured pianist, Alexander Toradze. It even includes an excerpt of Van Cliburn the conductor! Not his real métier, although he seemed to be enthusiastic - there is a clip of him conducting (not entirely eloquently, it has to be admitted) Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.

It is the clips of Van Cliburn the pianist that make this DVD special, though. As one watches him create a marvellously singing tone in Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz, one is simultaneously mesmerised by his hands. This is one of several extended excerpts (i.e. substantially longer than just a ‘clip’) that further add to the documentary value of this release. Even ‘effects’ are nicely managed - I refer to the juxtaposition of black-and-white footage with colour inserts of interviewees.
The importance of Cliburn as cultural diplomat (the power of music over politics) in the wake of his Moscow triumph of 1958 is considered. In addition, there are excerpts of the winning account of the Tchaikovsky (valuable also for the chance to watch the conductor, Kondrashin, in action). Cliburn was later to bring Kondrashin to the USA, no easy matter in those days. Shostakovich, the competition’s General Chairman, presented Cliburn with the medal. The list of jury members reads like a ‘Who’s Who’: Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels (Jury Chair and first Soviet musician to perform in the U.S.); Lev Oborin; Dmitry Kabalevsky.

Excerpts from tracks featured on the Audio CD (see below) that comes as part of this set are often used as background music, as well as excerpted in their own right. There are also tantalising excerpts of other works - a magical Brahms Second Piano Concerto, for example. Always Cliburn’s legato is a defining factor in his art - interestingly, Leontyne Price says that, as a singer, she emulated his legato (usually, of course, it is the pianist who is encouraged to think vocally!).

Cliburn played for every President of the United States in his lifetime since Eisenhower, a measure of the recognition accorded to his art. His nine-year absence from the concert stage is mentioned, as is his eighteen-city tour of the United States late in his life. The documentary is always gripping and one feels, at the end, deeply moved.

The second, recital, disc confirms impressions. Every single item generates its own superlative, from the loving flow of Brahms’ Op. 118 No. 2 to the impossibly beautiful Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 3. Although in the case of the latter the climax might appear a little under-played, compare and contrast Cliburn and, say, Freddy Kempf on his recent BIS disc SACD (SACD-1390) to hear the great against the merely adequate. Cliburn’s huge tone is fully in evidence in the Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau and contrasts superbly with his L’Isle joyeuse. This Debussy is a marvellous invocation, and listening to Van Cliburn is like following a compellingly-read story, so strong is his sense of narrative. This makes for a truly magnificent centre-piece to the recital.

Criticisms are hard to find - perhaps the Brahms Intermezzo needs to relax more and the voice-leading of the contrastive sections could be more characterful; maybe the C sharp minor Scherzo (Chopin) is not as viscerally exciting as perhaps night be expected. The dry recorded sound here does not help, yet there remain some magical moments.

Van Cliburn’s huge sound is best replicated in the Rachmaninov C sharp minor Prelude. The Mephisto Waltz No. 1 makes for an astonishing close to the disc. Accents fly like sparks, scales glitter. Throw-away arpeggios and cascades of notes make this one of the most memorable readings I have heard (only Berman on a HMV/Melodiya LP of mine is uneclipsed by it).

A fascinating, riveting documentary complemented perfectly by a CD of the most magical piano playing. Interesting to note that Rubinstein, Caruso and Toscanini are also featured in this RCA series. Plenty more to explore, then!.

Colin Clarke

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