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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Piano Concerto No. 1 [34.42]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943) Piano Concerto No. 2 [34.08]
Van Cliburn (piano)
RCA Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin (Tchaikovsky)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (Rachmaninov)
Rec. 30 May 1958, Carnegie Hall, New York City (Tchaikovsky); Rec. 31 March, 2 April 1962 Orchestra Hall, Chicago (Rachmaninov). ADD
RCA BMG LIVING STEREO SACD 82876613922 [60.02]

Van Cliburn’s legendary 1958 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1 with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the RCA Symphony Orchestra (New York Philharmonic Orchestra?) still remains remarkably fresh as if it had only just recently been recorded live in concert. This was his first recording on returning to the US from winning the first Moscow Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in March 1958 and it became the first classical record ever to sell over a million copies.

The first movement can often sound bombastic and clangourous under showy virtuosi but with Van Cliburn there is a sense of reserve and intellectual reflection. His classical objectivity renders emotion even more directly and undiluted. He lets the notes speak for themselves without subjective embellishments or extremes of tempi. His masterly piano technique has total control over dynamics and tonal colour. Here his playing is simply perfect. His way with the slow movement is agile yet delicate, whilst in the closing movement he imparts a robust urgency without sacrificing clarity.

The SACD (Super Audio CD) sound quality is crystal clear sounding closer to the naturalness, warmth and depth of the original LP and without any of the harshness and flatness of some CD sound.

Van Cliburn’s reading of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no.2 with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is even more subtle and reserved than his playing of the Tchaikovsky. The great feature of this performance is the playing of the Chicago Symphony, notably the seamless carpet of strings at the opening of the work. Van Cliburn’s genius is to play the notes without the embellishments or excesses that this overtly romantic work often invites. The soloist’s reflection and repose give the work an even greater depth of emotion and poignancy. In the second movement the soloist becomes a member of the orchestra, playing duets with the beautifully played woodwind solos.

The closing movement is overwhelmingly moving without sounding cloyingly sentimental. Again Van Cliburn’s intelligence and reserve give the notes added emotional power. Even in the climactic passages his playing is never forced or over-stated, yet his range of mood and dynamics is extraordinary. In the closing passages the velvety Chicago strings play with deep expressivity, totally at one with their soloist.

The recorded sound has a warm, concert hall ambience, with the soloist naturally balanced with the orchestra. Needless to say Fritz Reiner’s conducting is first rate as is the playing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I highly recommend this Super Audio CD. These are paradigm performances of old war-horses. This is a must-have CD for any lover of Russian music and legendary piano playing. Buy it!

Alex Russell

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