Brahms: Concerto No 1, Handel Variations / Van Cliburn

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Van Cliburn's youthful impetuosity is most convincing. This is very much a performance that takes one along with it, just as a fine performance live...
Van Cliburn's youthful impetuosity is most convincing. This is very much a performance that takes one along with it, just as a fine performance live in the concert hall would.

It is some eighteen months since Van Cliburn's surprisingly successful account of the Brahms Second Concerto appeared, and on the face of it this vast youthful inspiration of the First Concerto should suit Van Cliburn's special qualities even more closely. And so it proves, and though Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony do not prove such perceptive collaborators as the lamented Reiner with his Chicago Orchestra, this is in terms of pianistic display and dynamic driving force as exciting a performance as we have ever had on record. The way for example that Van Cliburn in the finale sweeps the music on from the first subject into the second is irresistible. Those pianists who insist on relaxing may seem a little lacking in excitement in direct comparison—even to Clifford Curzon. Where they score—and Curzon of course is the prime example of a thinking virtuoso in this work—is in the subtlety of shading. You could not claim for Van Cliburn much sense of 'inner' thoughtfulness. But that does not mean he is hard, and throughout the warmth of the playing is as striking as the dynamic drive. It is a pity perhaps that in the American manner the soloist is put so close to the microphone, for it is hard for him to achieve a real pianissimo, however gently he plays. But RCA's technique of spotlighting individual instruments (not merely the piano) pays off very well at the climax of the slow movement—a moment that for me at least is perhaps the most important single passage in the whole work. If in the great call of the rising fourths slowly enunciated over piano arpeggios you have a sense of culmination and achievement such as opera composers provide at moments of dramatic catharsis, then I am disposed to think favourably of the whole performance. It is so with the Gimpel performance on HMV Concert Classics where Kempe is marvellous, and here Leinsdorf (with the help of the spotlighting engineers) directs with more warmth than I remember from him for a long time.

In the first movement of course, Curzon's subtlety coupled with his wiry strength is a hard combination to compete with, but Van Cliburn's youthful impetuosity is most convincing. The speed is not fast (much less fast than in the Fleisher/Szell performance for example) and Leinsdorf, though not specially good on detail, gives the music a tremendous sweep which exactly matches the soloist's sense of command.

I hope I have made it clear that this is very much, a performance that 'adds up'. In other words it takes one along with it, just as a fine performance live in the concert hall, and on that account I have been wary of drawing too sharp a contrast with Curzon on the basis of a side-by-side comparison of extracts. Curzon, I think, would be most people's choice, but if I wanted bravura above all, then Van Cliburn even more than his fellow young American, Leon Fleisher, provides it. Apart from the balance, the recording—I have so far heard mono only—is good, though it never achieves the atmospheric clarity that the Decca engineers provided for Curzon.

-- Gramophone [3/1965]
reviewing the original LP release of the concerto


Product Description:


  • Release Date: July 09, 2008


  • UPC: 090266035724


  • Catalog Number: RCA60357


  • Label: Sony


  • Number of Discs: 1