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RACHMANINOV: P. Con. No. 3; The Bells – Van Cliburne, p./Sym. of the Air/Soloists/ Krill Kondrashin – Praga Digitals

The best version yet of this classic.

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in d, Op. 30; The Bells, Op. 35 – Van Cliburn, p./ Symphony of the Air/ Elizaveta Shumskaya, sop./ Mikhail Dovenmann, tenor/ Alexei Bolshakov, bar./ Moscow P.O./ Kirill Kondrashin – Praga Digitals Reminiscences stereo-only SACD PRD/DSD 350 123, 78:01 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Yes, this is that recording from 1958, Cliburn’s homecoming triumph after winning, against all odds—considering who was in power at the time in the Soviet Union—the First International Tchaikovsky Competition, a huge Cold War ploy if ever there was one, considering the wealth of musical talent present in Russia at the time, almost guaranteeing a win. It was the performance of the Tchaikovsky First and Rachmaninov Third that won the day for the young Harvey Lavan Cliburn, and when he returned to New York, Maestro Kondrashin was there at Carnegie Hall with him, subsequently recording the piece for RCA Victor. Only history will testify as to how much this significant event in the relationship between the United States and the USSR was soothed by the balm of Cliburn’s love for the Russian people, and their very demonstrable love for him.

This recording has been issued umpteen times, but never in better sound than here. I had to up the volume a bit to get some of the orchestral impact, but if you love this recording—and I can’t see how anybody couldn’t—this is the one to have. Interpretatively it is simply superb, to my mind challenged only in modern days by Martha Argerich and Riccardo Chailly, or Garrick Ohlsson with Robert Spano, the much-vaunted Horowitz with Ormandy a non-starter in tinny sound.

The choice is made easier by an extremely fine Bells, one of the composer’s three favorite compositions, the other two being his All-Night Vigil and Symphonic Dances. I agree with him on that point, with The Bells possibly my favorite of all his works. Despite the surrealist musings of translator Konstantin Balmont’s poetry, there is enough Edgar Allan Poe left to lift Rachmaninov’s inspiration to almost unprecedented highs. The piece is powerful, potent, and soaring lyrical. Kondrashin’s 1962 effort, while not topping Shaw (in English), or especially Andre Previn’s 1977 EMI Grammy winner with the LSO, makes a fine coupling. The real star however, is Cliburn, and that’s as it should be.

—Steven Ritter

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