Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 2.
Van Cliburn (pn); Fritz Reiner, cond; Chicago SO
TESTAMENT SBT2 1460 (2 CDs: 82:31) Live: Chicago 4/60
It is possible that at least one generation has grown up merely associating the name “Van Cliburn” with some piano competition in Fort Worth. Although most of his recordings are still available, this Testament set provides a welcome reminder of the phenomenon that they missed. These, it
should be pointed out, are not the same performances that were issued by RCA Victor; they are live performances that preceded the studio sessions. Although I do not assume that live performances are,
, superior to studio recordings, in this case I would say that, however subtle the differences may be, these performances are at least as good as what came out on RCA Victor. In the case of the Brahms, the performance has a weight, grandeur, and relaxed power even beyond the excellent RCA effort. Maybe this merely boils down to the orchestra having a closer presence and the pace being a shade slower. From the beautiful opening horn solo (Philip Farkas?), one almost senses that this performance is going to be something special, and I think it is. Cliburn’s sensitivity and technical chops are a pleasure to hear, and Reiner is with him all the way. If you are an admirer of the conductor’s earlier, fleeter recording with a fiery Emil Gilels at the keyboard, the Cliburn/Reiner way with music may seem too slow. I happen to like both performances quite a lot; then, again, I could (and do) live with many excellent recordings of the piece, including the RCA Cliburn/Reiner, Gilels/Reiner, Uninsky/Otterloo, Anda/Fricsay, Horowitz/Toscanini, Curzon/Knappertsbusch, and both Serkin/Ormandys, and this doesn’t exhaust the list of those I
Here, economics intrudes upon aesthetics. Because Testament has coupled the Brahms with a live performance of the Schumann Concerto that couldn’t be squeezed onto the same CD (the original and, to me, inappropriate coupling on RCA was the MacDowell Concerto No. 2), they have included the Schumann on a second CD, and this is no twofer—it’s a two-CD set. The studio Cliburn/Reiner Brahms has now been recoupled on a budget CD with some of Brahms’s solo piano music. It costs less than half of what this Testament set costs. Interestingly, the MacDowell has been shuffled over to a Gold Seal CD and coupled with Cliburn’s Schumann Concerto. The Schumann was also coupled on an SACD with the Cliburn/Reiner Beethoven Fifth Concerto … choices, choices!
I loved the Cliburn LP but never purchased the recording on CD because I had more than enough recordings of the Schumann Concerto. My restraint has been rewarded: In the Schumann, it seems to me that, once again, the live performance has just a slight edge over the excellent studio recording. When I hear a performance of this piece, I do not like to think that the soloist is trying to impress me with his or her brilliance, and in both cases, what emerges from the CD is a clean, relaxed Schumann Concerto that impresses me with its unpretentious warmth, not its technical flash. Unfortunately, Cliburn seems to have burned out, apparently unwilling or unable to cope with the aggravations and frustrations of an international virtuoso’s career; but for a while there, he was the real thing—a big romantic virtuoso with taste. I think Bryce Morrison’s annotations are thorough and interesting, even though I believe he oversells the differences between the studio recordings and the live ones.
FANFARE: James Miller
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 54 by Robert Schumann
Van Cliburn (Piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1841-1845; Germany
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