Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 2

by | Apr 4, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 2 (1972)

Program: GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16; BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 – Van Cliburn, piano/Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
Studio: VAI DVD 4453
Video: 4:3, black & white
Audio: Mono PCM
Duration: 85 minutes
Rating: ****

Live performances for Russian television from the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory (1972) feature Van Cliburn (b. 1934) appearing once more with his esteemed Russian colleague, Kirill Kondrashin. The visual quality has rinsed out the definition of the principals, but the aural qualities are there in spades, especially in the Grieg Concerto, to which Cliburn brings a decided capacity to make tone in broad and ringing cascades, curlicues, and purrings, as the composer demands.

First, Cliburn must disengage himself from the various wreaths and flowers that bestrew the concert platform. At the tympanic roll, Cliburn is there, providing poetry and bravura at once, with the orchestra’s projecting as lush a sound as a Russian ensemble can deliver. The Russian cello sound dominates the secondary theme, while Cliburn adds tiny, sentimental sighs and caresses to the already massive solo that assumes iceberg proportions. Fluent, richly layered, the Grieg has much to recommend it as perhaps Cliburn’s finest realization of this, the most perfect of piano concertos. The camera becomes quite static at the first movement cadenza, but the bold playing compensates for the medium shot of Cliburn that only manages to close in a bit to his right side and the piano’s interior. The huge trills lead to a mysterious return of the orchestral tissue, then a martial, resolute progression to the coda.

The Adagio, that most “oriental” of concerto second movements, has an uncanny way of dissolving into space. Kondrashin molds its opening flourish with warm affection–lovely French horn and solo cello–and Cliburn joins in for the unhurried, pantheistic orisons. The camera manages to shift behind Cliburn’s left shoulder, and we can likewise see the rapt, Moscow audience. Proceed directly to the explosive Allegro moderato of the last movement, the momentum now having become insistent, stunning, and risk-taking. After the maelstrom, the air clears for the flute’s solo into the middle section, a liquid song of Norway played with unsentimental nostalgia. The Andante marcato resumes with fiery aplomb, fingers and colors flying in a rapture of songful, aerial virtuosity on all counts. The coda’s tricky metrics pass by in a magical blur, and even the Russian worshippers seem a bit startled that the music is actually over and that they must now riot in appreciation.

After a muffled start of the Brahms in the French horn, the B-flat Concerto catches quick fire, and the rest becomes pretty much standard, bravura history. A big, warm cello sound from the first movement tutti, certainly befitting the idea of a symphony with piano obbligato. Cliburn’s technical security allows him to etch his roulades with more dramatic vigor and darker coloring than have been the wont of his commercial recordings of this massive concerto. Strong transitional ensemble back to the recap, Kondrashin’s insisting on articulate work from his horns and woodwinds, that ubiquitous French horn. Mystery and emotional aggression mark the D Minor Scherzo, the long shots over Cliburn’s tapered finger suggesting there are no interval or technical hurdles beyond them. When the music takes off into the major, the clarion sound of the Moscow Philharmonic peals with jubilation. Cliburn obviously loves his Brahms, investing tender poetry where he can and projecting a thrilling determination into the movement‘s coda.

The un-named cello soloist plays a sympathetic introduction over warm, restrained strings for the Andante, the oboe and flute equally prominent. Cliburn moves through the varied affects of this massive movement with blithe security, from salon-like intimacy to fierce declamations, the turgid ebb and flow of epic passions. Suddenly, the music hangs suspended in time, each keyboard tone a teardrop in the pool of Eternity. Piano and cello combine for a distinctive, abbreviated song without words, the plucked strings beneath and secondary strings above, with oboe, having provided a cocoon of Romantic ardor. This wonderful nocturne’s descent ends on a long, rejuvenating series of trills from which the cello draws another breath, and silence covers all. “Grazioso” provides the rubric for the jaunty last movement, although Cliburn and Kondrashin several times threaten to explode into more than symphonic, sonata-form rapture. Cliburn’s hips sidle into the secondary, scherzando theme, all of the orchestral instruments tripping lightly in stride. The more toccata aspects of the keyboard writing pass through Cliburn as liquid in a sieve, though he colors his chords meticulously. The last pages combine éclat with the innate, Teutonic grandeur of the Brahms B-flat Concerto, a kind of imperial march with the piano acting both harp and drum. Both Cliburn and Kondrashin extend fervent handshakes to their cellist, and then the unisono clapping kicks in, among smiles and abundant flowers.

–Gary Lemco

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