Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 [34:36]*
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54 [30:41]**
Van Cliburn (piano)
RCA Symphony Orchestra/Kyrill Kondrashin
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner**
rec. first published 1958* and 1960**
REGIS RRC1391 [65:27]
For me the Tchaikovsky concerto on this disc is one of those recordings that remain in your aural memory and are used, often quite involuntarily, as the benchmark against which all other recordings are judged. What makes a recording fall into such a category is hard to say but it could become one for all kinds of reasons, not least because it made such an impact at the time you heard it, maybe for the very first time. It is this reason I suspect that places these recordings firmly in that bracket. In 1958 I was only 17 and I well remember buying the LP of the concerto (RCA Victor LM-2252 Red Seal) when it first appeared on the record shop shelves with its gold band around the edge and the photo of the tousle-haired Texan Van Cliburn on the cover. What had inspired me to buy it, possibly the very first LP I’d ever bought for myself, apart perhaps for “Bluejean Bop”, a record by Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps (!), was that Van Cliburn had created a sensation by being the very first pianist to win at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. If I remember rightly it cost at least 28/11 (£1.49 or around $1) and what an investment it was, or might have been if I’d still got it.
The competition, which at its inception was for both pianists and violinists, with categories for cello and male and female voice coming later, was conceived to showcase Soviet talent to the world during the cold war and following the USSR’s surprise launch of the first sputnik the previous year. One can therefore imagine the shock the judges had when they felt they had to award the first ever prize to an American, not so say dismay, since they then had to break it to Krushchev who famously said ‘Is he the best?’ and when told that he was said simply ‘Then give him the prize’. There was no doubt that he was the best and the audience - one of whom was Krushchev himself - gave him an eight minute ovation. The authorities subsequently became used to awarding the main prize to non-Soviet pianists at times: John Ogdon shared the prize in 1962 with Vladimir Ashkenazy (who left the USSR the next year) and other winners have included Grigory Sokolov, John Lill (sharing with Vladimir Krainev), Andrei Gavrilov, Mikhail Pletnev, Peter Donohoe (sharing with Vladimir Ovchinnikov), Barry Douglas and Boris Berezovsky. The competition has, like the piano competition in Leeds, UK, become an international launching pad for world class talent. For Van Cliburn to bring home to the USA such a prize from such a place was greeted with a Time magazine front cover entitled “The Texan who conquered Russia!”. He was accorded a ticker tape welcome in New York, the only one ever for a classical musician and normally reserved for political giants, baseball teams and the likes of Amelia Earhart the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. The impact upon the musical world was huge and the 24 year old’s career shot into the stratosphere - in 1962 a competition was even established, named in his honour. His record with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the RCA Symphony Orchestra was the best selling classical record for a decade and the first ever to reach platinum, finally achieving triple-platinum, meaning sales of over 3 million. Was this warranted I hear you cry, now that the dust of time has settled. I say, yes it was; this performance really is that special with an electricity in it that is almost palpable. It’s as if one were hearing it for the very first time. There’s a theatrical sweep to the music that makes for a truly memorable experience. You will have to be the judge of this and make up your own mind as to whether, given the background against which it was recorded, it is just my own fancy; I say not. I say it is warranted because it is a great performance irrespective of all the political and cultural baggage associated with it even if I may find it hard to ignore it all. I truly believe that I would form the same opinion if I were to listen to it “blind” as it were. There is no mention of who was responsible for re-mastering it but it was re-mastered in 2004 when it was released on SACD. This may be a ‘pressing’ from that but in any event the sound is fresh and with a startling clarity for a recording that was originally made over 50 years ago. Tchaikovsky himself would have been thrilled to hear such a faultless performance and the passage of time has done nothing to diminish my initial feelings. Van Cliburn’s ability to achieve muscularity when required and a degree of refined and sensitive subtlety at other times helps deliver a thrilling performance which leaves a memorable impression. How strange it is to read that its original dedicatee Nikolai Rubinstein (Anton’s brother) rejected it as ‘worthless’ and ‘unplayable’ and hard to imagine how crushing a rebuff that must have been for the composer.
Two years after the record’s release, in 1960, Van Cliburn made the other recording on the disc: the piano concerto by Schumann together with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its conductor Fritz Reiner. Once again his subtlety and sensitivity are well to the fore in a performance of great beauty. It is no surprise to learn that Schumann wrote the work for his beloved wife Clara, one of the truly great pianists of that generation. For me Van Cliburn makes the concerto more beautiful than I normally give it credit for. That only goes to show how vital a good performance is in forming opinions as much about the work itself as the event on the day. He emphasises the gentle nature of many of its passages, particularly in its slow second movement marked Andantino grazioso but delivers a powerful punch at the necessary junctures especially in its closing moments when majesty is called for in spades. Van Cliburn retired from the public eye, save for the odd appearance, in 1978 following the deaths of both his manager and his father. The musical world has been the poorer because of that for he was a lion of the keyboard without any doubt. This CD is a brilliant historical record of his prowess and one to be treasured.
Steve Arloff 

This is a brilliant historical record of Van Cliburn’s prowess and one to be treasured.