DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 5

Taped at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1960 and 1972, Van Cliburn returns to the scene of his greatest international triumph, rapt and long-fingered in the Liszt Sonata.

Published on October 23, 2009

Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 5

Van Cliburn in Moscow, Vol. 5  

Program: LISZT: Sonata in B Minor; Sonetto No. 123 del Petrarca; Mephisto Waltz No. 1; CHOPIN: Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39; Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12 “Revolutionary”; SCRIABIN: Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 2; Etude in D-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No. 12; DEBUSSY: Prelude “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune”  –
Studio: VAI DVD 4456
Video: 4:3 B&W
No region coding
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 77 minutes
Rating: ****

Taped at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1960 (Liszt Sonata) and 1972, Van Cliburn returns to the scene of his greatest international triumph, rapt and long-fingered in the Liszt Sonata, already in medias res as the opening credits announce him in Russian and English. The Liszt Sonata receives a large sinewy realization from Cliburn, digitally secure and well-paced to accentuate its natural division of its one movement over four emotional phases. The camera only assumes two major positions: to the right, mid-shot and profile; and directly on Cliburn’s face of hands as they stretch over the massive design of Liszt’s fiery percussive conception.  The wicked bass trill and its respondent runs assume a mighty girth over the course of the piece, especially in the diabolical fugal section. Despite the bleached-out quality of the visual image, the sound simply staggers us, a fury of diametrically opposed impulses to poetry and to perdition.  More than his commercial inscriptions convey, Cliburn reveals a diverse spectra of emotions, a capacity for nuance and seamless control that can only add to his legendary status.

By 1972, Cliburn is the darling of the Russian public, especially the ladies. (You can see that from the front cover…Ed.) The camera and the audience greet him, then he sits down for Chopin’s torrid C-sharp Minor Scherzo. Cliburn’s approach proves both fast and top-heavy in the outer, stormy sections, but his secondary theme soothes the percussion and finds something like palliative poetry. Block chords resound forcefully; the liquid runs sweep the keyboard clean. Strong bass accents take us to the da capo without any jarring of the line. The concept is clangorous, if compared to someone like Moravec, but the internal logic, the harmonic modulation, develops without affectation. 


More Liszt rhetoric in the Petrarch Sonnet No. 123, which often proceeds in the manner of an unorthodox barcarolle or nocturne with a seven-note curl or sigh and its attendant, antiphonal response. The right hand enjoys solo cadenzas or dry recitatives, savoring recollections of amorous ecstasies. The Mephisto Waltz revels in its own diablerie, Cliburn’s punching out the village dance with spiteful glee, a bravura easily comparable to the fleet Cziffra and the imperious Horowitz. We find the Devil as seductive as he is ironic, the figures plastic, confident, resonantly audacious.  Just before the immense coda, Cliburn executes a series of runs so harp-like we think of Swan Lake.  Just watch the flowers fly at him upon his second bow!

Scriabin proves as intimate as the Liszt was monumental. Cliburn’s left hand moves deftly but suavely, the thumb maintaining the melody high in relief over a thumping bass or palpitating bass line. Chopin with added incense, the music lingers in sensuous repose, a magic carpet woven of the hairs of Persian cats and snow leopards. Cliburn cannot leave: he smiles to sit down and render a pointed aerial rendition of Debussy’s moonlit prelude to ghostly audiences, the French equivalent of Scriabin’s mystic raptures. The Cliburn patina at the Steinway, hard and often clangorous, still conveys an icy poetic dew that wafts in the space above the Arctic Circle.

Yells and more exuberant howls call forth Scriabin’s passionately blistering Etude in D-sharp Minor, whose volcanic heat all but melts the keyboard. This candle consumes itself with an ardor that burns blue in a sustained instant and then falls into its own black hole. By now, the Russians are one step from apoplexy, so Cliburn stands and just sits back down to engage the Chopin Revolutionary Etude. This piece might be the analogy for all of the tempests that had blown back and forth between the Soviets and the Americans post WW II, here reconciled in Polish nationalism that finds its country in every human heart.

–Gary Lemco    




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