Sunday, March 17, 2013

Perusing Van Cliburn's legacy (and yes, we'll even get to "the Tchaikovsky")

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30:
i. Allegro ma non tanto

Van Cliburn, piano; Symphony of the Air, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. RCA-Sony, recorded live in Carnegie Hall, May 19, 1958

by Ken

The Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, as I've said, I love beyond qualification -- and we heard Van Cliburn play the first movement, with Fritz Reiner conducting, in the April 2010 post "In perfect balance -- Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, where everything comes together just right." As to the more ambitiously scaled Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, one of the supreme virtuoso challenges, well, I've just never come under its spell, though rehearing the first movement played live by the Cliburn-Kondrashin team (just a couple of days after the pianist's triumphant return from Moscow as winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition), I'm as close to being persuaded as I've ever been.

As I mentioned in Friday night's preview of this week's Cliburn remembrance, I got the copy of the Complete Van Cliburn Album Collection I mentioned having ordered in the brief post noting the pianist's passing.


the tremendous physical ability, which he'd developed to win him such thunderous acclaim at such a young age, and those lanky good looks that had the girls and boys of America drooling. Sad to say, life doesn't seem to have worked out that smoothly for him, and well as he was rewarded for his gifts and accomplishments, it seems to have been a tough time, leading to the early virtual suspension of his public playing career, and a later comeback that never really brought him back, and in general a fair amount of personal torment.

The concert soloist's grind, for one thing, can be grueling, and while Cliburn's acclaim made it easier in some respects, it made it harder in others -- everywhere he went, the expectations preceded him. It can't be easy spending your working weeks, months, years trying to live up to all that. Especially since he was a great intuitive rather than probing artist.

You didn't look to him for challenging insights; you looked to him to bring the music alive, with that fullness and beauty of sound and expression. Those big hands weren't just powerful but supple, and I've picked a couple of Chopin selections -- one from the My Favorite Chopin LP, one from a decade later -- to illustrate both the prodigious capacity of those fingers to articulate whatever needed articulating and the forthright, melting way he could make the keyboard sing. Listen to the charming impudence of the treble flourishes Chopin adds to the first theme about 1:47 of the Third Ballade, or to the open-hearted eloquence of the great and famous central tune at about 1:11 of the Fantaisie-Impromptu.

CHOPIN: Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47

Van Cliburn, piano. RCA-Sony, recorded in New York City, May 31, 1961

CHOPIN: Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66

Van Cliburn, piano. RCA-Sony, recorded (location unknown) Aug. 10, 1971


Where better to turn than Liszt? I thought we'd listen to the grand Mephisto Waltz No. 1. In the liner note for the 1973 Cliburn Liszt LP from which this selection comes, Harvey E. Phillips writes of the piece:
Liszt made the Devil a mordantly irresistible protagonist: mocking, cynical, enjoying himself at the expense of common humanity. The Lenau text has him arriving, along with Faust, at a peasant wedding celebration. Faust woos the innkeeper's daughter while Mephisto seizes a violin. After prolonged tuning up -- the introduction -- a wild melody begins to cast a spell in his auditors. A languorous second theme, corresponding to Faust's attempts at seduction, is wickedly embellished as the villagers lose themselves in ever more frenzied, orgiastic dancing. The revelry reaches a climax, a nightingale is heard in the distance, the peaseants wander off, as do Faust and his new conquest -- and Mephisto plays on.
LISZT: Mephisto Waltz No. 1

Van Cliburn, piano. RCA-Sony, recorded in New York City, Aug. 8, 1973


This is the first occasion to point out that there's an orchestral version as well.

LISZT: Mephisto Waltz

New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, cond. Teldec, recorded live, December 1992


This My Favorite Chopin LP provided a happy format for a kind of album that especially suited Cliburn's music-making, and would be reused formally for Encores, Debussy, and Brahms, and in spirit for several other compendia.

Friday night we heard two selections from My Favorite Debussy: "Clair de lune" and "La Fille aux cheveux de lin." And the solo selection we heard in the earlier quick remembrance of Cliburn's passing, the Schumann-Liszt "Widmung" song arrangement, came from My Favorite Encores. I was notably sorry I didn't have My Favorite Encores on hand when we dabbled with encores, that special corner of a concert soloist's repertory, ("Encore, encore!," May 2012). We often get our most intimate view of a performer from his/her choice and delivery of these "bonus" tidbits, with no obligation to any design built larger musical structures or into soloist's formal program.

Here's one more selection from My Favorite Encores:

SCRIABIN: Etude in D-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 12

Van Cliburn, piano. RCA-Sony, recorded in New York City, Aug. 11-14, 1970

And a couple from an LP as unfortunately titled as the My Favorite ones were happily titled: The World's Favorite Piano Music.

SCHUBERT: Moment musical in F minor, D. 780, No. 3

Van Cliburn, piano. RCA-Sony, recorded in New York City, Feb. 2, 1972

MacDOWELL: Woodland Sketches, Op. 51: No. 1, "To a Wild Rose"

Van Cliburn, piano. RCA-Sony, recorded in New York City, Feb. 2, 1972

Speaking of MacDowell, Cliburn also recorded his Second Piano Concerto, not to mention Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata (which, after all, Vladimir Horowitz had recorded).

And maybe just a little more Rachmaninoff: an emotionally light and dark minor-key prelude and the melting 18th variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which we heard played by several pianists including the composer in the April 2010 preview post, "A peek at the 'fifth' Rachmaninoff piano concerto"). In fact, we'll hear the variation twice, in his U.S. commercial recording and in a, well, more rhapsodic live performance from his 1972 return to Moscow, performing again with his great old colleague Kiril Kondrashin, whose 1994 U.S. release he apparently encouraged.

RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5

Van Cliburn, piano, RCA-Sony, recorded in New York City, Aug. 5, 1971

RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43:
Variation 18, Andante cantabile

Van Cliburn, piano; Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. RCA-Sony, recorded May 7, 1970

Van Cliburn, piano; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. Sony, recorded at the Moscow Conservatory, 1972


Cliburn recorded a good chunk of the Romantic powerhouse concertos -- in addition to the Tchaikovksy First and the Rachmaninoff Second and Third, the two Liszts, the Chopin First, the Grieg and Schumann (and then the MacDowell Second and, perhaps stretching "Romantic" a bit, the Prokofiev Third). But he also recorded some core Classical concertos -- the last three of Beethoven and both of Brahms. Granted, he wasn't a Classical specialist; the notion that he "couldn't" play Mozart and Brahms seems to me fairly silly. We already heard the slow movement of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, in that initial farewell post. Today I thought we'd hear a piece I've made clear (for example, in the second preview, "Down in the basement with Beethoven," to the March 2010 overview of the Beethoven piano concertos, "In the piano concertos, we hear Beethoven in hard-fought sort-of-harmony with the universe") is especially special to me.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58:
i. Allegro moderato

Van Cliburn, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA-Sony, recorded Apr. 22, 1963


TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23:
i. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso; Allegro con spirito

Van Cliburn, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, cond. RCA-Sony, recorded mostly live in Carnegie Hall, May 30, 1958


As visitors to the standalone "Sunday Classics with Ken" blog (at sundayclassicswith will have noticed, I haven't made much progress lately in porting the earlier years' worth of Sunday Classics into the new arena. It's just such a laborious process! However, what I've started doing this week is importing posts to which I'm linking in the new ones, which with the older posts means virtual reconstruction -- but at the same time in some cases provides an opportunity to fill gaps left by "disappeared" video clips.

I'm hoping to have some time in the near future to resume the general importation process, and perhaps more important to make inroads into an updated version of the SC index, to make more of the older posts more accessible. Meanwhile this new initiative should help, though. And it's been fun re-encountering some of the revivified posts, like the preview "peek" at the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody which in some quarters could easily enough pass for a proper post on the rhapsody. (As of this writing I haven't gotten to the three Beethoven-piano-concerto posts. That was a mostly unexpected late addition to this post.)

As some sneak peekers may have noticed, when I can get Sunday Classics posts up ahead of their scheduled DownWithTyranny post times (Fridays at 9pm PT for previews, Sundays at 10am PT for main posts), I've been doing so on the stand-along Sunday Classics with Ken site. No promises, but it may be worth checking.

For the record, Sunday Classics is still on hiatus from hiatus. There's been too much stuff to cover lately to allow much time for crystal-ball-gazing.

As always, thoughts are welcome.

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