I do not own this recording on cd and although I own the recording of the Rachmaninoff piano concerto no. 3 on vinyl, a 70's reissue on RCA's .5 half speed remaster series, I do not own a copy the recording of the Prokofiev no.3, therefore my comments wil be limited to the Rachmaninoff.
I have a few thoughts which I believe will provide some important perspective on the quality of the performance and recording. Upon obtaining the consent of Van Cliburn to allow their equipment to be brought into Carnegie Hall and a recording to be made, RCA's engineers had less than two days to set up and make all the preparations to record the concert. Van Cliburn had just returned to the U.S. two days prior to the concert after winning the first international Tchaikovsky competition in the Soviet Union and the subsequent hectic whirlwind and probably exhausting tour through that nation. He was probably not thoroughly rested at the concert. He and the conductor Kiril Kondrashin most definitely did not have the amount of rehersal time with the orchestra they would ideally have wanted.
As a result there are a number of problems with this record, mainly with the sound quality which is substandard even for 1958. In fact I believe 90% of the perceived problems can be blamed on the sound engineering. Another 5 or 6% can be blamed on the very occasional technical flaws in Mr. Cliburns playing. The remaing 4 or 5% to my ears sound like problems with the piano itself.
Given the above facts, to put it in slang terms, this recording, especially the performance itself, is a freaking miracle. It is simply amazing. As I said Van Cliburn's technical errors are few and far between and the vast majority of the apparent harshness in the piano in some passages is obviously soundwave distortion. I perceive only two places where there are significant problems with his playing which are toward the end of the long first movement cadenza where his timing and touch seem to break down momentarliy from which he quickly recovers. The other is the passage of hard descending chords leading up to the final two minutes of the piece which get a bit sloppy although he takes them at possibly the fastest tempo ever recorded and with such fire and passion I don't think that there is a pianist that has lived that could play them perfectly. I was almost shocked the first time I heard them.
As to how this performance was conceived, it seems to me to be an absolute work of genius. It strikes me as being the perfect balance between the stately, lyrical approach of some pianists and the passionate fireworks of others. The first movement seems to be dominated by the first approach in which Mr. Cliburn fittingly uses the longer of the two cadenzas of the composer, although the issue of which one a performer uses is not a huge one to me. The second movement is relaxed yet moderately paced. All the stops are pulled out for the final movement
of which the overall timing is on the fast side but if nothing else, particularly in his youth,Van Cliburn had the knack for building to a climax so this is not just a race to the finish. In fact, throughout the piece he builds to dramatic high points with excellent phrasing and then levels off or backs off nicely to keep just enough tension.
It is remarkable that such a performance could come from a mind so young as Van Cliburn was at the time and probably running on adreniline and nervous energy, caught up in the thrill of the moment. This performance was a triumph, as can also be judged by the reaction of the crowd at the end who had obviously just heard greatness. This makes the technical flaws in the sound something of a tragedy. But we should be thankful that it was recorded at all and I suppose we can just sit back and imagine what it must have sounded like to those who were there.