Van Cliburn

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3; Kabalevsky: Rondo

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Deep in the heart of the Cold War, there was once a miracle in Moscow -- Texas-based classical pianist Van Cliburn, of whom no one had heard, conquered at the First Tchaikovsky Competition, an event set aside to showcase Soviet talent. Cliburn was warned by his own government not to go, given the tense political relationship between the United States and Soviet Union at the time, and once he arrived he was greeted as a party crasher, subject to hostile stares and animosity of the kind he had never dreamed of back in Texas. And it was Cliburn, at the end, which brought down the house, and held the award. Back in America, he was greeted with a ticker tape parade and was the subject of a best-selling biography by Abram Chasins, The Van Cliburn Story, copies of which continue to clog the shelves of American thrift stores five decades hence. Ultimately, though, Cliburn's celebrity lost its luster. Nerves, ultra-picky perfectionism, and mishandling by management led to his early retirement from the concert scene; his greatest latter-day achievement being the force behind the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, America's most prestigious such event.

Right after Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, RCA Victor secured a contract with the pianist and rushed him into a hastily arranged recording session -- with Soviet conductor Kiril Kondrashin present and accounted for -- where he repeated his winning concerto program, consisting of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov's Third. This swiftly became the best-selling classical LP of all time and may well have not been superseded in the interim. However, Testament's Van Cliburn plays Tchaikovsky -- Rachmaninov -- Kabalevsky is not taken from the studio recording, but from a Soviet tape of the original concert. This recording was available in the Soviet Union for decades, but never circulated in the West; the Kabalevsky Rondo alone appeared on a BMG CD in the '90s. The master tape has not survived without some compromise; it's a little constricted in the openings of movements, but widens out as they progress and fairly long passages of the antique Soviet recording yields pretty realistic sound. Cliburn is definitely on fire in this appearance; perhaps all of the opposition to his appearance welled up inside him and released itself in a torrent of superb playing. The Soviet bloc judges gave Cliburn the prize simply because he was the most "Russian"-sounding pianist in the competition, not because his American-ness made him superior in any way to the other players, as the xenophobic sentiment felt across the pond would tend to assume.

The sound recording of this important cultural document is certainly not to the level one would get with a twenty first century recording, made in studio circumstances and all of the digital tricks of the trade in evidence. However, it is not as bad as one might expect, and the very availability of the concert represented on Testament's Van Cliburn Plays Tchaikovsky -- Rachmaninov -- Kabalevsky affords us the opportunity to sit in on one of the most consequential concert appearances made by any artist in the twentieth century, not to mention appreciate the full measure of Cliburn's great achievement there. He never again had a night like this, and one wonders as the march of time goes on if it is possible for a mere pianist to upset the balance of political power much as Van Cliburn did.

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