Assuming that there is any financial news worth recording in the
current economic climate, do New York stockbrokers get all their
data these days via computer screens rather than on paper? I
only ask because, if that’s the case, Van Cliburn will presumably
retain in perpetuity his achievement of being the only classical
musician to be honoured with a ticker-tape procession through
the city’s streets.
acclaim was the result of his amazing victory in the piano section
of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow
in 1958. That achievement was “amazing”, let me make clear,
not because he wasn’t fully deserving of the prize but because
he was an American and, in those freezing depths of the Cold
War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was actually required to
approve the judges’ choice before it could be announced. Thereafter,
the lean, rather gangling and diffident pianist became American
classical music’s poster-boy until choosing to withdraw somewhat
from the spotlight in the late 1970s following the deaths of
his father and his manager.
DVD, the third of an ongoing Van Cliburn in Moscow series
and deriving from material preserved by Russian TV, offers us
inter alia live performances of Rachmaninoff’s two most
popular piano concertos. The earlier is that of the third concerto,
performed at a winner’s concert after that 1958 contest. A
major reservation has to be recorded at the very start: the
visual image is poor. It would appear from the general gloom
that little or no extra lighting was imported to assist the
cameras. This is less black-and-white than mid-shades-of-grey
television, very similar in quality to what US TV had looked
like at the beginning of the decade – compare Toscanini’s television
broadcasts on Testament’s DVDs. There is also a considerable
amount of slight but annoying visual distortion owing to some
sort of horizontal striation. Moreover, camera angles are relatively
unimaginative – though actually rather better, as it turns out,
than they were to be 14 years later (see below). A final point
is there appear to be some unnecessarily interpolated sequences
that, to judge from the completely different quality of the
film, were not genuine parts of the original broadcast material
– fortunately, though, these are shots of audience members rather
than the performers.
is, nevertheless, a striking performance. The very youthful
looking soloist, just 23 years old at the time, had obviously
already built up a strong rapport with the conductor and orchestra
(there is some good-natured joking between them before the performance
begins) and the audience was clearly all agog to see and hear
the surprise competition winner in action once again.
well might they have been! This is a tremendous, completely
confident live performance, combining, as required, supreme
lyricism with unbelievable impetuosity – and delivered with
such concentration and power as to make one imagine that the
executant’s very life depended on it. He dashes the concerto
off with the technical assurance usually associated with pianists
of much greater experience and Kondrashin, clearly astonished
at what is happening at the keyboard alongside him, gives his
all in fully committed support.
month after this television recording, Cliburn and Kondrashin
made their famous live RCA Victor recording of the same concerto
with the Symphony of the Air, the reincarnation of Toscanini’s
old NBC Symphony Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall. In his review,
my colleague Jonathan Woolf did not consider that particular
crowd-pleasingly flashy performance (“subject to moments of
refinement and sudden over-dramatised theatre”) to be an account
to live with on CD. He is probably right in that judgement.
But, with the added visual dimension, technically compromised
though it is, I think you can make the case for what we have
here on the DVD: certainly not a performance for life
but, rather, a valuable memento of a one-off occasion captured
for posterity and best regarded as just that - the performance,
if you like, of Van Cliburn’s life.
1958 encores are all carried off with great aplomb. Widmung,
with powerful waves of rippling melody sweeping over Moscow
Conservatory’s Great Hall, is an especial delight and
the audience is utterly thrilled and delighted to hear a mightily
effective coup de theatre in the form of the performer’s
own arrangement of Moscow Nights.
the 1972 performance of the second piano concerto, we are on
rather better ground as far as the quality of the TV recording
is concerned. The image is much brighter and sharper, though
still falling short of contemporary western technical standards.
And, while the USSR had introduced colour television transmissions
as early as 1968, only a year behind the UK, this performance
was still recorded – surprisingly, I would have thought, for
such a high-profile occasion - in black and white.
major issue is, though, the poor direction that results from
the inadequate provision and physical distribution of the cameras.
Although the orchestra under Kondrashin again makes a tremendously
powerful contribution to the performance, the way it is filmed
is quite rudimentary. Today we are used to close-ups of, say,
the cellos as they sing out a passionate melody or the brass
when they make a dramatic entry. But what we have here is a
series of pretty basic and prolonged long and medium shots,
often taken from inappropriate and unhelpful angles. I even
wonder how familiar the director was with the music itself,
for he or she entirely misses the orchestral opening of the
central adagio sostenuto, remaining fixed instead on
Cliburn sitting at the keyboard and merely (only metaphorically,
of course!) twiddling his thumbs. The first movement has almost
come to an end before the cameramen discover an angle that lets
us see much of the soloist’s facial expressions and, in order
to see clearly what Cliburn’s amazingly long fingers are doing
on the keyboard, we have to wait until the second movement (whereupon
the director, clearly delighted to have found a good vantage
point at last, holds the shot for what seems like eternity!).
in spite of its technical limitations this is another performance
worth preserving – and not only from a purely historical perspective.
Demonstrating note-perfect technique and expert and sensitive
dynamic control from the very beginning of the first movement,
Cliburn’s interpretation emerges as more powerful and muscular
than most and he is certainly not one to dawdle unnecessarily.
While the score’s more lyrical sections receive due attention,
any suspicion of over-sentimentality is completely avoided.
The audience seems to love it all and applauds with immense
enthusiasm – but I do wonder whether that was at least in part
because, at a time of considerable international tension, they
were recognising a returning artist whom they regarded as an
“old friend” of the USSR.
is, then, an important historical document. The 1958 performances
are, in particular, well worth watching so as to give one an idea
of why it was that, against all the odds, it was an American who
was allowed to win that inaugural Tchaikovsky competition. In
the end, as is clear from this DVD, Nikita Khrushchev made absolutely
the right choice: “Is he the best?” he is said to have asked,
“Then give him the prize!”.