As a kid of 11 in 1958, I was never crazy about Van Cliburn's studio recording of the Tchaikovsky First, made less than two months after his triumph in Moscow. Somehow, fine as it was, it never seemed to catch fire. It remains a worthy account, but if you have it, you owe it to yourself to spend some serious time with this CD. It will probably make you forget what he did "in studio," because this recording finds Cliburn erupting with white-hot inspiration in his final concert of the First Tchaikovsky Competition. Never before have I heard him play with such sweep and fire and overarching vision. This was an unrepeatable occasion, and in his every note you can feel that *he* feels that truth. Power, poetry, delicacy, fancy, ferocity -- whatever the music yearns to be Cliburn delivers with heart and soul and fingers fully and mutually engaged.
With this CD, you no longer have to wonder what all the shouting was about back in '58. You can hear quite plainly for yourself. There will never be another concert like this -- and can you believe that after Tchaikovsky 1, Cliburn also played the huge Rachmaninoff 3 *and* a rondo created expressly for the contest by Kabalevsky? That's a *lot* of notes for one evening (April 11, 1958)!
Cliburn's emotional generosity is simply overwhelming. His virtuosity will drop your jaw a notch or two -- and remember, he's doing this during the first installment of what set out to be and remains one of the greatest music competitions on the planet. There are times in the big codas of the Tchaikovsky and in the magnificent cadenza of the Rachmaninoff, for instance, when Cliburn attains an almost fearsomely blinding intensity of expression that surely made the Russians feel he was really their own native son. I wonder whether he ever reached this emotional pinnacle again. He was certainly much tamer when I heard him play in Boston in the early '70s.
After hearing these performances, one is almost not surprised by the young Texan's effect on the great Sviatoslav Richter (who sat on the jury with the likes of Gilels, Shostakovich, and Kabalevsky), as related by Bryce Morrison's liner notes (which misgauge VC's competition age as 24 instead of 23): "[W]hen both jury and audience had recovered, their comments came thick and fast [. . .]. Sviatoslav Richter, happily oblivious to competition protocol, gave Cliburn a hundred marks, his competitors zero, remarking, 'he is a pianist, the others are not'." Wow!
Testament deserves highest praise for restoring this previously unavailable full account of one of the great moments in Western musical history. Knowing how awful 1950s Soviet recordings can be, I was astounded by the power, impact, and clarity of this superb 2008 remastering. I've heard bits of the Tchaikovsky over the years, but always in suboptimal sound. Hearing Testament's transfer is a revelation, like seeing Rembrandt's *Night Watch* liberated from centuries of grime.
The intense inspiration of this moment sweeps aside every flaw. No, the Moscow Phil. is not Leningrad, but they play with big hearts, and they give Cliburn their best. Van misses a few notes. It doesn't matter. What he does *not* miss are the grand noble arcs of the big pieces or the lushness of the gardens nestled underneath. People cough here and there. Who cares? I didn't even notice until the third or fourth hearing. *That's* the magic Cliburn sets in motion here. R.I.P., Van. We who were here in '58 will never forget what you did or the grace with which you did it.
This is living musical history I never thought I'd get to hear. Please don't pass up the chance to immerse yourself in a transcendent moment when great music really conquered all. We will not see its like again.