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Van Cliburn — Piano Legend
Van Cliburn (piano) with accompaniments
Track-listing below
AUDIOPHILE CLASSICS APL 101802 [3 CDs: 65:16 + 67:49 + 79:00]

It’s appropriate to mark Van Cliburn’s death with a brief mention of some of his best-known recordings which have here been collected in a three-disc slipcased collection. Nothing here will be at all unfamiliar even to the less dedicated admirer of the Texan.
The most emblematic piece is, naturally, Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, with which he wowed the Muscovite public and the jurors at that famed Tchaikovsky competition. Kondrashin did the honours for Cliburn in Carnegie Hall in May 1958. The RCA Symphony supports energetically, and even those moments of relative unsteadiness and untidiness fail to diminish Van Cliburn’s commanding pianism; one which is, moreover, reluctant to indulge bombast and buffoonery. The coupling is the Schumann Concerto, a level-headed interpretation in which some may well prefer the piano contribution to Fritz Reiner’s somewhat gimlet-eyed accompanying with the Chicago Symphony.
Despite the brouhaha and ticker-tape welcome home, Van Cliburn was never a showman pianist. There’s plenty of clarity and refined musicianship, as well as a sure sense of direction, in Prokofiev’s Third Concerto - Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony in 1960. You never feel Van Cliburn pulling at rhythmic leashes. His tempi are invariably just, not pushed; his tone emerges attractively and is never forced. Percussive bravura is not really his thing. The other concerto here is Beethoven’s Emperor with Reiner in Chicago. This is an authoritative reading, and a good collaboration. It doesn’t reach any great heights of expressive intensity and is a little on the cool side. It’s a shame that this transfer truncates the gap between the first and second movements so drastically.
The final disc of the three couples Edward MacDowell’s Second Concerto with the Chopin sequence that Cliburn recorded in Webster Hall, NYC, in May and June 1961. Cliburn was a thoroughly unaffected Chopinist whose sense of scale and tempi were perfectly calibrated to bring out his own imperatives in the music. Of older players Szidon and Watts both make strong cases in their various MacDowell performances, but Van Cliburn’s D minor has romantic grandeur and technical assurance, ably abetted by Hendl and the Chicagoans.
Newcomers to Van Cliburn’s art, perhaps prompted by the obituaries, have a wide choice of available options. The 28-CD Complete Collection is available on RCA, whilst a 3-CD Sony offers set offers ‘The Great Piano Concertos’, which partly duplicates this Audiophile release. Regis has released the Tchaikovsky and Schumann concertos at a bargain basement price, RCA Victor has the Beethoven and Schumann, whilst its sister marque, Gold Seal, has the Schumann and MacDowell on a single disc. RCA’s Special Import label has the Schumann (a popular choice) and the Prokofiev. Thus there are plenty of single and multi releases from which to select. This Audiophile Classics comes without notes of any kind and I’m not sure as to its provenance; it’s ‘Made in the EU’, for what that’s worth. Sound quality is good throughout.
Jonathan Woolf

CD 1
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 (1875 rev 1879, 1889) [34:25]
RCA Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin, rec. May 1958, Carnegie Hall, NYC
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54 (1841-45) [30:33]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner, rec. April 1960, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
CD 2
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26 (1917-21) [29:37]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Walter Hendl, rec. October 1960, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 Emperor (1809) [38:00]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner, rec. May 1961, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
CD 3
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.23 (1884-86) [26:37]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Walter Hendl, rec. October 1960, Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Polonaise in A flat, Op.53 Heroic [6:57]
Nocturne in B, Op.62 No.1 [6:55]
Fantaisie in F minor, Op.49 [12:06]
Etude in A minor, Op.25 No.11 Winter Wind [3:25]
Etude in E, Op.10 No.3 [4:40]
Ballade No.3 in A flat, Op.47 [7:21]
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op.64 No.2 [3:14]
Scherzo No.3 in C sharp minor, Op.39 [7:11]
rec. May and June 1961, Webster Hall, NYC