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Van Cliburn in Moscow Vol. 3
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Piano concerto no.2 in C minor, op.18 (1901) [37:54]
Piano concerto no.3 in D minor, op.30 (1909) [45:13]
Prelude in E flat, op.23 no.6 (1901) [3:24]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) / FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886)
Widmung (1840) [3:45]
Vasily SOLOVYOV-SEDOY (1907-1979) arr. Van Cliburn
Moscow Nights (1955) [2:22]
Van Cliburn (piano)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin (Rachmaninoff)
rec. live, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 1972 (concerto no.2) and 1958 (concerto no.3 and encores)
VAI 4454 [95:10] 

Experience Classicsonline

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.

That 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. 

This 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. 

This 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. 

And 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. 

A 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. 

The 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. 

With 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. 

The 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!). 

Nonetheless, 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. 

This 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!”.

Rob Maynard


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