1958 was a red-letter year not only in music competition history but in the entire history of performance. For it was then that 23-year-old Van Cliburn of Texas won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, taking with him both the hearts of the Russian people and his jury (which included such luminaries as Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Richter and Gilels). Thawing the political freeze between Russia and America, he went on to achieve a celebrity and charisma unknown since the days of Liszt and Paderewski. But Cliburn’s only London solo concert, given at the Royal Festival Hall one year later, was a no less remarkable event. There I joined a capacity audience (including a bevy of Hollywood stars) on a hot summer afternoon to witness playing of a wholly extraordinary communicative character and power. And, strolling down memory lane and listening once more to one of the most remarkable recitals ever given on the South Bank, one word comes to mind above all others and that is ‘eloquence’. It is surely a truism to say that today, as never before, the world is teeming with pianists whose mechanical skill is unmatched by a convincing musical voice or sound. Cliburn’s technique – something far transcending mere mechanics in its overwhelming range, colour and sonority – was immense and yet was always at the service of a generous spirit, anxious only to celebrate and share great music. Throughout this recital he ‘speaks’ with a voice and sonority uniquely his own. Expectation pulsed at fever pitch, yet Cliburn’s vast audience was taken by surprise when he launched into the National Anthem, milked and thundered for all its worth; a lavish and very Texan tribute to the British people (in today’s parlance, to ‘that special relationship’). But then came Mozart and the Sonata in C, K.330, gently and affectionately confided, alive with that unmistakable full and ‘golden’ Cliburn tone and a legato and cantabile ‘more Russian than the Russians’. Yet at the same time everything was delicately and imaginatively pointed with a special sense of Mozart’s poetic ambiguity, his subtle and melancholic undertow. From the booklet note by Bryce Morrison
“The three Chopin works are carefully phrased and clearly articulated with a full, even tone...while Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata (another Cliburn favourite) provides the outstanding performance of the recital...An unflashy, deftly executed Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 rounds off proceedings.”
29th January 2010
“...beginning with a juicily harmonised and affirmatively delivered God, Save the Queen...he then launches into Mozart’s C major Sonata K330, in which his famed full tone is to the fore, before letting a more fiery, individual temperament exert itself in Beethoven, Chopin, Prokofiev and Liszt, vividly coloured and with a commanding presence.”
Click on any of the works listed above for alternative recordings.