INKPOT#79 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Great Pianists of the 20th Century Vol. 19 – Van Cliburn (Philips)
– Great Pianists of the 20th Century Vol.19 –
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor
Preludes in D, G minor, C minor, C-sharp minor
tude Tableau in E-flat minorPyotr Illyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor
Barcarolle and Song of the Lark from Les Saisons, Op.37b
RCA Symphony Orchestra Symphony of the Air
conducted by Kirill Kondrashin
PHILIPS Classics 456 748-2
2 discs [141:19] budget-price
by Johann D’Souza
There is so much to thank this tall Texan for. He was the harbinger of what the Russian music schools were made of, which no one in the outside world had ever heard of. After hearing Richter, he came back to the States and told the “whole world” about this great person. (Richter was already making a name for himself, notably through the “Sofia Recital” in 1958, which has been called the recital of the century by many a music enthusiast).
Left: Picture from the Van Cliburn Foundation homepage.
Click here for a biography.
It was also in this year that the first Tchaikovsky competition was held. The Russians with all their pride knew that a loss would be equivalent to a World War loss (mind you the Cold war was at its peak during this time). Everything was at stake in this competition – however sometimes music transcends all barriers. But otherwise the Tchaikovsky Competition has been noted for its controversies – Ovchinnikov finishing in a tie with Peter Donohoe, Ashkenazy doing the same with John Ogdon in 1962. The most recent is that of Freddy Kempff’s 3rd prize in 1998.
Van Cliburn was not the favorite to win but as the competition progressed he was not only the tall handsome Texan winning the hearts of his listeners but the judges as well. A student of Rosina Lhevinne at Julliard, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1954 playing the Tchaikovsky concerto (thus he was quite familiar with the work when he played it at the competition). His previous teachers included Arthur Friedheim, who himself was a student of Anton Rubinstein – so if one judges the fruits by the tree – then we have really a good tree.
This Great Pianists album covers three very interesting warhorses. The Carnegie Hall ‘live’ performance of the Rach 3 and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 were both recorded in May 1958. There is also the ‘live’ Rachmaninov second Sonata recorded in 1960 which has been voted by many as one of the best ‘live’ recordings of this work.
Van Cliburn’s playing is different from his peers because of the qualities he possesses – “interpretative intuition, virtuosity and technical perfection”. Listen to his second Sonata – from the opening bars there is total unleashing, with nothing held back – absolutely nothing. His Tchaikovsky is so ‘Russian’ that the Russians themselves marvelled at his rendition.
I do have a recording of a solo piece “Widmung-Schumann/Liszt” which was played at the post-competition finals (unfortunately not on this set of discs) where it is said the girls moved to the top of the stage to see and hear Van Cliburn up close. It is one of the most introspective renditions that I have ever heard and most beautiful. Women brought him flowers and cried as he played this signature piece to them. I have to admit that the recording is brilliant with good clear sound, the crowd cheering gives the ‘live’ recording both spirit and excitement in these two most loved concertos.
While he did make his name around the world with tours, including within the States, he suddenly stopped in 1978. He said he needed to recharge and would take a year off – this somehow became a decade and it was only in 1987 did he returned to play when an invitation came from Ronald Reagan. Many pianist often talk about recharging, stating that only rest and solitude can bring a pianist to newer heights. Pianists like Ashkenazy strongly believe this and often retreats to Norway where he goes on long walks in the mountains and hills and spends time with this family.
I suppose this holds true for every musician if one pays heed to the balancing call for silence and solitude. The notes point out that there was an article in the papers that called “[Van Cliburn] the Recluse” something he was quick to point out as absolutely untrue, as he was noted to be a “people’s pianist” and loved being with and playing for his audience.
Although Van Cliburn’s return was welcomed, many believed he wasn’t like the old Van Cliburn who played the Rach 3 with fire and panache any more, and his reviewers often said he lacked fire and spirit. However performances given in Russia at the invitation of Mrs. Gorbachev were played to packed houses and reviewed as the Van Cliburn they once heard in 1958, playing with confidence and blatant brilliance. He now does a couple of concerts a year in the States and sometimes travels to Japan and Europe. But there is no better proof of his great pianism than the existence of a famous piano competition called, simply enough, the Van Cliburn Competition.
In Singapore, the Great Pianists series can be easily found or ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren).
Johann D’Souza believes in retreating – but he goes on retreats either to Cistercian monasteries or leads a life of silence, often not talking to anyone for days.