Van Cliburn – London Recital 1959 [Testament]

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Mozart
Piano Sonata in C, K330
Chopin
Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op.39; Ballade in A flat, Op.47; Fantasy in F minor, Op.49
Beethoven
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
Prokofiev
Piano Sonata No.6 in A, Op.82
Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 in C sharp minor

Van Cliburn (piano)

Recorded 7 June 1959 in Royal Festival Hall, London


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: January 2010
CD No: TESTAMENT
SBT2 1445 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 54 minutes

Following applause, Van Cliburn launches into the United Kingdom National Anthem, unscheduled and to the surprise of the Royal Festival Hall audience, the recorded sound good enough to capture its members standing in recognition of the opening bars and to witness a thoughtfully dynamic and harmonised performance. The Mozart Sonata that follows is pure delight; unhurried, delicately touched, gently mused, and poetic without becoming saccharine.

A year on from taking the top prize in the first-ever Tchaikovsky Competition (the Jury including Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Richter and Gilels), Van Cliburn (aged 23 when he was victorious in Moscow) was in London to give his only solo recital there, one that continued with tempestuous and soulful renditions of Chopin, Cliburn’s tone altogether richer than the crystalline timbres employed for Mozart, the Trio of the C sharp minor Scherzo particularly heartfelt. In the Ballade, Cliburn is both flexible and on-course; he takes us into a distinct and palpably-emotional world and culminates with the great Fantasy, which he plays with largesse, poise and, when required, direct intensity, and a volatility that never loses sight of Chopin’s songfulness.

For the recital’s second half, Cliburn juxtaposed two powerhouse sonatas, the ‘Appassionata’ surreptitious in its opening from this pianist. He exploits a wide dynamic range without drawing attention to it as well as finding more relaxation (without losing tension) and poetry in the first movement than can be the case while also carrying the inevitability of the music to its conclusion, the opening of the second movement a solemn response. In the finale, as for the first movement, Cliburn also avoids hot-headedness (and, it could be argued, an essential recklessness), yet such a Classical conception (albeit undermined by Cliburn’s decision to not repeat the development section, a repetition that Beethoven requests) pays many dividends, but the explosive coda is less coruscating than ideal.

Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, a wartime work (completed in 1940), is given a tough performance, an uncompromising reading of music that for Sviatoslav Richter intimated “a world without reason or equilibrium”. Not that this is a piece without suggestion or variety; rather, it’s that Cliburn gives such an unvarnished and focussed account that the inspiration of the music, however tragic, is unmistakable.

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 was offered as a generous (10-minute) encore, evocatively spun (almost extemporised), passionately sounded and full of derring-do. Fantastic, in fact, and a great way to conclude what was obviously a singular occasion (literally so given Van Cliburn has not given another recital in London, and probably never will – Bryce Morrison, who was present in the Royal Festival Hall 50-odd years ago, and contributes an informative booklet note, is critical as to how Cliburn’s career was subsequently handled) that is faithfully captured by the excellent stereo recording not least regarding Van Cliburn’s tone and individual sensibilities; a notable event captured in gratifying fidelity.

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