Van Cliburn in Moscow (1962)

by | Nov 12, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 5 (1962)

Program: BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23; CHOPIN: Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 – Van Cliburn, piano/Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
Studio: VAI DVD 4452
Video: 4:3; Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Duration: 104 minutes
Rating: ****:

To see the tall, lanky Texan once more win the hearts and minds of the Russians in 1962 is to appreciate just how much of an advocate for peace pianist Van Cliburn (b. 1934) became in a time of political tensions.  Despite the bleached-out visuals and the unimaginative camera work that plagues the televised production, the musical and “humane” aspects of the concert more than re-inforce Cliburn’s stoic, cool demeanor that won him the Tchaikovsky competition 14 April 1958. He appears a Hero of the People, and he acknowledges their presence in word as well as musical deed, dedicating the Tchaikovsky Concerto “to Professor Goldenweiser” and the Chopin Fantasie “to Nikita Khrutschev.” That Cliburn had evolved into America’s foremost diplomat speaks for itself.

No less a musical presence is the late Kirill Kondrashin (1914-1981), batonless, and always in plastic sympathy with his soloist. Together, at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, they make elegant, fleet work of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto: Cliburn, ever poised, his back a ramrod pillar, the camera virtually stationary over his left shoulder or close-up, on the elongated fingers, arched in a run or sculpted phrase, urging the top line forward. The camerawork obviates all instances of individual, instrumental soli, so clarinet, oboe, horn, and tympani are left as acoustical entities only. Several moments stand out, especially the “galloping octaves” section of the first movement, where Bernard Shaw once exclaimed that “I did with my ears what I do with my eyes when I stare.” Cliburn instantiates the essence of pearly play, eliciting liquid sound from the keyboard, perhaps even at the expense of monumental drama. A rapt performance of Beethoven’s Adagio brings out Cliburn’s singing legato, the patina soft until the descending half-note transition to the Rondo, lithely fluid. Watching this video with my mother in Orlando had her exclaim, “He has very long fingers!” 

The Tchaikovsky First Concerto became Cliburn’s obvious calling-card; collectors be aware a version with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic exists on disc. Again, the Russian camera is all on Cliburn’s hands as he announces the Introduction’s oft-quoted theme, Then, Tchaikovsky imitates Schumann by repeating all motifs twice. No soli in the orchestra deserve a visual image, it seems, despite their aromatic and lyric fancies. Only in the second movement do the cello and violin warrant the sharing of the visual image–mostly because they are right beside Cliburn’s piano–even the flute and French horn remain invisible. Note Kondrashin’s big moment in the orchestral stretto prior to the first movement cadenza. Nice alla musette playing from Cliburn, a technique that virtually bristles in the Liszt 12th Rhapsody. Huge block chords and a mighty coda from Cliburn/Kondrashin to end the first movement – more potent than their RCA version, and more on a par with Richter/Karajan, which remains my favored inscription. Flute and Cliburn for the Andantino, with cello, violin and assorted winds, the latter of whom we hear but do not see. Quick cascades for the Allegro con fuoco, the fire especially prevalent. By the time the fire is over, another has risen from the audience, Khrutschev and Gromyko, et al. applauding with the rest of the tumultuous crowd. 

The two encores reveal a thoroughly trained Cliburn, quite poised in the rather “extensive” selections, especially the episodic Fantasie of Chopin, with its several affects held together by arpeggiated runs and dark recitatives.  The Liszt is meant to sweep us away, as it surely does – a splashy, virtuosic performance that reveals that a young, patrician volcano sat before a mesmerized Russian audience and convinced them that Music is the bringer of Peace.

–Gary Lemco


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