Van Cliburn: The Texan who Conquered Russia

Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Van Cliburn, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner
Release date: 04 Nov 2016, G010003642898N

Time magazine hailed him as “The Texan who conquered Russia” and “Horowitz, Liszt and Presley rolled into one”. Praise indeed for the tall, slim, mild mannered yet unknown Van Cliburn who, as an unwitting young cultural ambassador, spectacularly won the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, launching him to international stardom to the universal acclaim of the critics and the shrieks of his adoring fans.

Lucrative concert tours and recording contracts followed; his recording in 1958 of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was an instant hit and became the first classical record to sell over a million copies. And between 1960 – 1963, he made a number of classic recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner for RCA, including the evergreen Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54, released here in a remastered version.

Cliburn’s performance in this concerto is a delight from start to finish. Assured, graceful and unpretentious, his open-hearted playing feels comfortably at home in this most poetic of concertos. There’s no showiness, posturing or the impression that he is straining at the leash with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Far from it; Reiner’s pacing, control and attention to detail is exemplary and the ensemble playing is richly satisfying. It never feels like a contest between the piano and the orchestra and Cliburn’s playing sings, especially in the heavenly last movement.

The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who had been a member of the Moscow competition jury, thought Cliburn a genius (“[a word] ..I do not use lightly about performers”) and in the first round awarded Cliburn 100 points out of a possible 10, scoring the other competitors zero. But it was Dmitry Shostakovich, also a jurist, who later astutely remarked that it had taken success in the Soviet Union for the American public to realise what a great pianist they had in their midst.

With a glorious recording like this, superbly remastered in a warm, rich sound, it’s hard to disagree.

Kevin Painting

Published 28 March 2017 on primephonic

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