Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 4 (1960/1972)

by | May 26, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 4  (1960/1972)

Program: BRAHMS: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24; PROKOFIEV: Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82; RACHMANINOV: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 36 – Van Cliburn, piano
Studio: VAI DVD 4455
Video: 4:3 Black&White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 86 minutes
Rating: ****

Live performances in consistently bleached Soviet black and white from 1960 (Rachmaninov) and 1972 (Brahms, Prokofiev) of Texas legend Van Cliburn, recorded in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Cliburn performs works that did not necessarily transfer to his official commercial discography.

Cliburn opens with the Brahms Variations, a leisurely, brooding conception under his hands, whose long, tapering fingers devour the trills, stretches, and bravura without strain. Despite the digital accuracy of the performance, a stolid, subdued, marcato approach loses color over the course of what should be a ceaseless variety of character pieces, and the latter filigree approaching the fugue becomes precious and brittle in the clarion, percussive stretti which rise to the four-voice fugue.

Most successful of the triptych musically is the Prokofiev Sixth Sonata, the first of the composer’s “wartime” elegies for the modern age. Militant, percussive, spiky in character, the music has Cliburn jabbing in obsessive figures a series of melancholy riffs, often crossing his hands to maintain the expressive line. An equally lachrymose Allegretto hints at the ballet Romeo and Juliet, perhaps nodding to Mercutio. A stormy waltz ensues, leading to a Vivace in toccata style, aggressive, moody, whose last two pages glitter, clang, and explode in a tortured vision of humanity. The last notes beckon a cascade of flowers from the admiring Russian audience, mostly women, cooing with hands and arms to their lanky American.

The Rachmaninov B-flat Sonata appears in its original version, and it often sounds like it could use some judicious cuts. The B-flat Prelude from Op. 23 seems to have been unleashed on an unsuspecting world, as Cliburn hurtles through the first movement, marked Moderato, but hardly less than an appassionato assault. When the music episodically calms down, the mood suggests a nocturne or etude-tableau loosely inspired by Chopin’s own Op. 35 Sonata. The Adagio indulges Rachmaninov’s penchant for water-pieces in the manner of Liszt or Ravel. The last movemet, Vivace, offers another toccata for Cliburn, albeit cluttered and rather amorphous. Rachmaninov submits these motifs to some quick and metrically diverse variation, and Cliburn brings the whole to an energetic finale, clearly weary after his confrontation with a piece–to lift a phrase from the film Amadeus–that suffers from too many notes.

–Gary Lemco

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