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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No.3 in A flat major, Op.47
Scherzo No.3 in C sharp minor, Op.39
Fantasy in F minor, Op.49
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 Appassionata
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111
Van Cliburn (piano: Chopin)
Claudio Arrau (piano: Beethoven)
rec. June 1959, BBC Television Studios, London (Chopin) October 1959 (Appassionata) and June 1960 (Op.111), BBC Television Studios, London
Menus, English: Picture Format 4:3: Region Code 0: DVD Format NTSC: Sound Enhanced mono: Black and White

Experience Classicsonline

Just a year after his remarkable victory at the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958, Van Cliburn was filmed for BBC Television in London performing three pieces by Chopin. The film is in black and white and of very reasonable quality. The sound is in ‘enhanced mono’ and in similarly good condition. The BBC decided to go for a drawing room mock up, with French windows and a few strategically placed plants, or plant effects: I’m still not quite sure if they’re of the potted or stencilled variety. Cliburn himself introduces the three pieces from the piano stool but in an understated and modest way. 

There is one camera, and it mostly stays in a position as if from a seat in the imagined stalls - if you can imagine stalls in a studio drawing room set. Occasionally the camera pans slightly behind and above Cliburn. But there are no other shots. Simple, but effective.
Expect no grandstanding or barnstorming. This is genuinely poetic and richly relaxed playing. The A flat major Ballade is a study in lyricism and legato, with no straining at the leash. His feathery runs in the third Scherzo attest to a refined spirit, and a concern for the deftest of articulation. He talks of the ‘march of fate’ in the Fantasy in F minor in which ‘earth passions [I assume earthly is meant] and spiritual awakening’ vie. He is at his youthful finest here, full of fresh and genuinely poetic feeling, and without exercising too much pedal. His dynamics are exemplary, his imagination vivid.

Van Cliburn shares this disc with Claudio Arrau, who plays the Appassionata four months later for the BBC. Gone are the French windows, gone is the gentle frivolity. There’s just a plain curtain in front of which he plays with his usual concentration. The sound quality is a touch less detailed than the Cliburn, and the print quality just a little less clear. Still, apart from a high level hum, these aren’t things to worry about. With Arrau it wasn’t really just a question of slowing tempi over the years. Some of his tempi got slower, but some didn’t. With the Appassionata he was remarkably consistent over the decades. What did change was a thickening of textures which made it seem as if his tempi were slower. In 1970 and again in 1983, both these filmed performances being on Euroarts [2058708 and 2058678 respectively], the tempi are almost identical to this 1959 BBC. The weight of chording here, though, is just that much brighter and lighter, and the camera angle going behind his right shoulder allows one to see just how the weight was produced.
There is what is called a ‘Bonus’. This isn’t because of timing, as the whole box only lasts 83 minutes, but because, one assumes, of picture quality. This June 1960 performance of Op.111 is in the worst picture quality, very grainy and indistinct, and in poorer sound quality than the other works. There’s some tape waver too. There is just one instance of front-on camera work where Arrau is framed beneath the lid, which reflects his face as he plays - an old standby that never fails to hit the mark. Once again it’s a question of bulking chords rather than tempo per se that distinguished the middle period from the late Arrau. This is still middle period, and highly effective. At the end Arrau courteously bows to the camera from the piano stool.
There is a wealth of Arrau on DVD at the moment, so this wouldn’t be at the top of my shopping list. Van Cliburn admirers however can enjoy it for its near concurrence with the piano competition that made him a star.
Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Beethoven Sonata 23 ~~ Sonata 32

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