Deep in the heart of the Cold War, there was once a miracle in Moscow – Texas-based classical pianist Van Cliburn, of whom no one had heard, conquered at the First Tchaikovsky Competition, an event set aside to showcase Soviet talent. Cliburn was warned by his own government not to go, given the tense political relationship between the United States and Soviet Union at the time, and once he arrived he was greeted as a party crasher, subject to hostile stares and animosity of the kind he had never dreamed of back in Texas. And it was Cliburn, at the end, which brought down the house, and held the award. Back in America, he was greeted with a ticker tape parade and was the subject of a best-selling biography by Abram Chasins, The Van Cliburn Story, copies of which continue to clog the shelves of American thrift stores five decades hence. Ultimately, though, Cliburn's celebrity lost its luster. Nerves, ultra-picky perfectionism, and mishandling by management led to his early retirement from the concert scene; his greatest latter-day achievement being the force behind the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, America's most prestigious such event.
The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 3 is rarely heard, though it is a finely crafted work worth greater attention. It has suffered alongside the magnificent and superior Second and the ever-popular First. Moreover, it is not a bona fide concerto at all, the composer having completed only the first movement before his sudden death in 1893. Contrary to the suggestion of a few, it is highly unlikely he intended to produce a one-movement concerto. Tchaikovsky wrote two other piano pieces the same year bearing the titles "Andante" and "Finale," respectively. Following his death, Taneyev orchestrated these and attached them to the Concerto, though Tchaikovsky had left no indication they were to be a part of it. But the pair did share something in common with the completed first movement: a theme source – the incomplete Symphony No. 7. In any event, the opening movement of this Concerto is the most compelling, featuring an exuberant main theme whose first two notes are the central melodic element. An attractive slow melody is soon presented, followed by a theme of great vivacity and rhythmic drive.
Today, it’s hard to fathom the worldwide sensation sparked by Van Cliburn’s victory in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. An American pianist winning a prestigious Russian event at the height of the Cold War made headlines everywhere and the two rival superpowers took the young Texan to their hearts, with a tickertape parade in Manhattan and frequent, sold-out tours of the Soviet Union by Cliburn during the following years. VAI has secured the original Russian television tapes of some of those concerts; this first of the series is from the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1962, with the excellent Kirill Kondrashin leading the Moscow Philharmonic. The formal program was made up of two of the most popular concertos in the repertory. The Beethoven Emperor Concerto features Cliburn’s big, bold tone and exquisite phrasing; his magisterial entrance is riveting and the meaningful trills Beethoven sprinkled throughout the work are done with pristine exactitude. The Tchaikovsky Concerto–Cliburn’s signature piece–is even better; the massive opening chords thrilling, ample poetry in the slow movement and, as in the Beethoven, truly stunning legato playing. Also worthy are the two encores–Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor, given with a mixture of power and poetry, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, brimming with excitement and pianistic mastery.
Van Cliburn’s legendary 1958 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1 with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the RCA Symphony Orchestra (New York Philharmonic Orchestra?) still remains remarkably fresh as if it had only just recently been recorded live in concert. This was his first recording on returning to the US from winning the first Moscow Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in March 1958 and it became the first classical record ever to sell over a million copies.
This is the Rachmaninov Third to end all Rachmaninov Thirds, a performance of such super-human pianistic aplomb, pace and virtuosity that it makes all comparisons, save with Horowitz himself, a study in irrelevance.
This is a phenomenal recording of this immensely popular concerto. It has been played to the point of exhaustion with every virtuoso using it to showcase their skills, which makes it extremely difficult to say something new. Kissin definitely grabs your attention from the first theme, taken at a slower tempo than usual, however, unlike some other artists he manages to keep your attention all the way through. He creates such immense drama and scale (this concerto has never sounded so huge as it did in this recording). The final moments of the concerto are nothing short of breathtaking and the deafening applause thereafter is token to that fact.
Daniil Trifonov, winner of the XIVth International Tchaikovsky Competition, is probably the world’s most exciting young pianist. On his first Mariinsky recording he joins Valery Gergiev for a scintillating performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. Daniil also presents a selection of recital repertoire including music by Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Liszt transcriptions of Schubert and Schumann.