Customer Reviews: Tchaikovsky: Concerto No. 1/Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2
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on May 23, 2000
Van Cliburn's prize winning performance in the Tchaikovsky competition was with the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto and the Tchaikovsky first concerto (the latter is on this disk). Taking Russian music to the heart of Russia for a piano competition was one bold move! Upon his triumphal return to the United States, the Carnegie Hall concert (with conductor Kiril Kondrashin flown in from the USSR just for this event) and this subsequent recording were put together hastily in order to preserve the moment for history. And what a recording it is!
I have listened to over thirty recordings of the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, and two stand out: Gary Graffman (with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra) and this Cliburn recording. He has all the piano technique for total mastery of this work---rapid and precise octaves, nimble fingerwork (particularly the presto middle section of the 2nd movement), a big sound (the opening allegro non troppo section), and a strong sense of the folk music basis for the main theme of the 3rd movement. Furthermore, only he and Graffman on record nail the notoriously tricky rhythmic pattern beginning the allegro con spirito main section of the 1st movement. He keeps careful balance with the orchestra throughout, and never resorts to excessive use of the pedal to cover up technical difficulties. Moreover, the performance is polished and intensely musical in every passage.
If you can tolerate an orchestra that isn't always impressive, then buy this Van Cliburn recording and be totally amazed! Other top recordings of the Tchaikovsky include the Graffman performance (with Szell), an aristocratic reading by Claudio Arrau, an impressive and virtuosic interpretation by Horowitz (with Toscanini and NBC Symphony Orchestra), and a grandly romantic one by Rubinstein (with Leinsdorf leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra).
The Rachmaninoff 2nd piano concerto recording is similarly impressive, with Cliburn drawing deep and thundering sounds out of the piano at every turn. This is Rachmaninoff at his most dark and brooding, with passages of joy only occasionally bursting forth. The microphone placement was too distant to get good treble out of the piano, but the recording has held up remarkably well over time. An excellent performance, too, although the Tchaikovsky alone is worth the price of this disk.
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on January 12, 2003
I wasn't even born when Cliburn took the world by storm, winning the Tchaikovsky competition in the Soviet Union. But the legend still lived on when I was taking piano lessons at the age of nine. While I was growing up, listening to any Cliburn recording conjured up the swell of pride that our nation felt about him, and that extra-musical element added to the joy of his music-making.
We often focus on Cliburn's victory in the Soviet Union as a uniquely American victory. A lanky Texan walked into the Soviet Union, our Cold War enemy, and played Russian music to a severely discerning Russian audience, completely bowling them over. Khrushchev had to give permission to the judges to give Cliburn the Gold Medal because it represented such an embarassment to the Soviet Union to have their pianists lose to an American.
In truth, it was also a victory for the Russians. To find that their music could be played with such understanding and depth by a young man so culturally and geographically removed from the Russian people proved that Russian music is universal -- it transcends cultural boundaries. That an American could be taught to play Russian music so brilliantly could only mean that Russian music was so great and compelling that it could speak to the soul of any human being regardless of his or her background.
In other words, it was a win-win situation for America and Russia, and this recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto becomes the place of meeting where both Russians and Americans can celebrate. Having Kiril Kondrashin, the famed Soviet conductor, lead the orchestra only serves to make that point even clearer.
This extra-musical element has always imbued Cliburn's recording with a sense of occasion. But one would be remiss if one thought that this recording was special only because of Cliburn's sweet victory. The discerning Russian audience knew what it heard was great, and this recording taken from a Carnegie Hall concert shortly after the competition makes it clear what they were so excited about.
Cliburn is a big-hearted player. He has a generous, open style that is utterly disarming. His playing is full of lyricism, grandeur, majesty and heart. It is particularly revealing to compare Cliburn's recording with another Tchaikovsky recording imbued with a sense of occasion: Horowitz and Toscanini.
On April 25, 1943, the great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz played a benefit performance of the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto at Carnegie Hall with the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. Money from the performance went to support the war effort by purchasing war bonds. The musicians brought a special fervor to the performance inspired by their patriotism for their new-found homeland. Here, again, the Tchaikovsky concerto became the medium through which cultural boundaries were transcended. But no playing could be more diametrically opposed to Cliburn's playing than Horowitz's.
If Horowitz's performance represented the pinnacle of what Russian's might expect from the Tchaikovsky concerto, then Cliburn brought a whole new perspective to the piece. Where Horowitz is incisive and brilliant, Cliburn is broad, noble and majestic. Where Horowitz can play at lightening-fast speeds, Cliburn chooses to slow the tempo in order to capture the ardour and sweep of the musical line. If the Russians were accustomed to Horowitz or Horowitz-like playing, then Cliburn's performance was a new revelation and marked a turning point in the way the Tchaikovsky concerto would be heard and performed.
Cliburn's performance may not have been as boldly different in conception as I argue above (after all, his teacher was a Russian pianist named Rosina Lhevinne), but it has become the standard by which I compare all other performances that have come after him. And the Horowitz recording I mentioned is a standard by which all pre-Cliburn performances get measured. They are so different and deserve to be heard in tandem to experience how a single piece of music can be interpreted in different ways.
The recording of Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto comes from a later date (with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony). This, too, has been my standard for Rach 2. Cliburn brings the same generous lyrical style to this most familiar piano concerto.
I highly recommend this disc, especially because of the historical moment it captures, but also because the performances are without peer.
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on April 15, 2001
This is an excellent recording and terrific playing of great music.
Last September, I saw this man play with the University of Iowa symphony orchestra the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 and I was simply amazed. I was hoping the historic recording he made would be as good as the his terrific performance of the concerto......It found out it was. This is the concerto that made Cliburn known throughout the world if you ask me. If he hadn't have played this terrific concerto back in 1958 in the Tchaikovsky competition (which he won by the way), he would probably not have been as famous as he is. So, you should definitely here this magnificant pianist play the song that made who he is today. Plus, the concerto itself is so great anyway. Right when you hear Cliburn smashing away the chords to open the beautiful melody of the concerto, you'll be locked into it. Seriously. Now onto Rachmaninoff. Possibly the greatest pianist of the 20th century (i think he is anyway). There is a great story to the Rach's 2nd piano concerto. In 1897, when the composer debuted his first symphony, it was so poorly conducted by the conductor (who wasn't rach) it made people hate it. Rachmaninoff became so depressed afterwards, he couldn't compose, play, or even think about touching a key on the piano. He sought treatment from a hypnotist that always told him everyday that when he was cured he would write a masterpiece. Dr. Nikolai Dahl (the hypnotist) was abosolutely right. After treatment, Rachmaninoff wrote the 2nd concerto, now thought to be his masterpiece. I haven't heard the composer's recording of this great concerto, but Cliburn's recording will have you breatless through his playing. The opening melody will make you feel what the composer was going through and will soon lead to a great melody that is repeated a few times. The 2nd movement made me get tears in my eyes when it was finished. You'll aboslutely love the romantic melody in this movement. Finally, the closing theme will have your pulse increasing and you'll feel very touched by the playing of this magnificent music. (as you can probably tell, this is one of my favorite concertos) So I definitely say you should buy this CD of this pianist who has given me inspiration to go into music. You will not find a CD like this everyday.
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VINE VOICEon April 7, 2006
Van Cliburn's famous rendering of the Tchaikovsky concerto, recorded just days after the tall Texan won Moscow's Tchaikovsky competition in 1958, has been one of classical music's most famous and endearing recordings since the day it first appeared on vinyl.

Not only is the performance in the vein of 20th century masters like Joseph Hoffman, it did much during a tense time in US-Soviet relations to relax tensions caused by the space race and arms race. The duo of Cliburn and Kiril Kondrashin showed the two superpowers could work together at one thing, at least.

The mixture of virtuosity and poetry is what sets this recording apart from anything that's been recorded since 1958. Pianists simply don't play like this any longer, especially virtuosos recording in the digital era. This recording has to be heard to understand the difference between the grand style of the 19th and 20th centuries and the keyboard style performed today.

I was a bit disappointed when I played this on my 5.1 system and it only played in stereo, especially since the booklet indicates it is a three channel recording. These are the inconsistencies of the early period of multichannel recordings, I've learned. One takes a chance every time one buys an SACD recording that it will merely be stereo.

Still, the sound is a magnificent upgrade from the original stereo, with much greater presence and definition in the sound field. Linked together with the magnificent artistry of the soloist and his accompanists, this remains among the the most treasurable piano recordings of the 20th century and probably is still the best recording available -- and now one of the best sounding recordings available -- of the Tchaikovsky.

For aboput $10 most places, this is a remarkable value that cannot be topped.
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on March 12, 2004
This is a historic recording, featuring Cliburn's performance of the Tchaikovsky 1st (which helped win him the gold metal in Moscow) and Rachmaninoff's 2nd concerto.
An adjective I would use to discribe Cliburn's playing here is 'thoughtful'. He has an amazing talent for bringing out melodies and voices that get lost in the bustle of many other performances of this concerto. Although he takes some passages at a slower tempo than I've heard elsewhere, the payoff is that the listener gets to hear in exquisite detail each voice and melody in the piano portion of the concerti. This is one of the best played performances out there of these works.
Unfortunately, it is not quite so up there in terms of the recording quality. The problem isn't so much with the sound (which is perfectly clear) as with its balance. As one reviewer already remarked, there is a tendency to focus on whichever instrument is carrying the solo/melodic line at the moment, making the other parts much less audible by comparison (both for the piano as soloist and various instruments in the orchestra).
If only the engineers had brought the same clarity and balance to the voices in the orchestra as Cliburn brought to the voices in the piano part, this would be my ideal recording.
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on September 12, 2006
I wanted a good piano recording and after a lot of web searching and reading reviews, I decided on this Van Cliburn recording. What sold me was that it was Van Cliburn at his prime, with this recording done only days after winning the Tchaikovsky competition. I am very satisfied with the CD as a whole.

The Tchaikovsky 1 is not bad except for the orchestra. Van Cliburn and the orchestra seem to be performing at two different levels, with Van Cliburn's performance being the superior of the two. I have to wonder if this was too hastily put together, an effort to quickly market the unexpected American Tchiakovsky champion. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic performance just for the piano part.

The Rach 2 is amazing. Flawless piano playing, great orchestration, amazing recording quality especially when I consider the age of the recording. I love the opening passage in the first movement, several chords that are similar in style to the famous `Bells of Moscow' and then BANG! Off to the races. I liked how the stringed bass of the orchestra reinforces the bass notes of the piano part. I like the Russian folk dance that appears at about 6:48 into the 4th track. I also loved the lyrical line coming from the horn at about 8:25 in the same track. Alan Kayes writes on the inside of the CD cover "the most arresting thing about (Van Cliburn's) playing is his mastery of ... the tasteful and assured use of rubato ..... the delicacy in executing pianissimos, the sure sense of musical phraseology, the feeling for restraint as well as climax, and all the remaining elements of musical sensitivity that go to make up a superb keyboard artist". That sums it up for me. The standard of this recording is extremely high. I wonder if anyone could match it, let alone beat it. The Rach 2 alone made it well worth the money to buy this CD.
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on May 7, 2003
There are no words to describe this CD accurately. It is, by far, the greatest recording of the Tchaikowsky concerto ever made, by the greatest pianist in the world. (If you disagree about the pianist part, I beg your pardon :)
I recently had the wonderful privilege of hearing Van Cliburn live, at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, VA. He played the Tchaikowsky concerto, and I've never been so thrilled in my life. Though even the live performance didn't match up to this recording.
The Tchaikowsky is played with a passion and sincerity so beautiful and genuine that it makes your heart ache. The Rachmaninoff has all the gusto, fire, and flair that you could ever wish. Five stars is not a high enough rating for this CD - an unbelievable recording.
If you don't have it, get it so you'll find out what you've been missing!
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on April 12, 2005
Here in one convenient package are the T1 and Rach2. If those sound to you more like sci-fi creatures in a James Cameron epic rather than the nicknames of two of the quintessential Russian works in musical literature - well, what the heck are you doing browsing in the classical aisle? Nicknames, after all, often come out of such great affection and familiarity with someone or something that formal names just no longer feel appropriate. And that's the way it is with Tchaikovsky's and Rachmaninoff's masterpieces of the concerto. And who would've thought a Texan, of all things, would be the one to bring Commie music to such popular heights? This recording has been a bestseller in America ever since it came out in the 50s. And for good reason. Van Cliburn was born to play this stuff. Infinitely classy, elegant, lovely and thoughtful playing is contained here. His is a sprightly, bright expressive tone where thoughts are intertwined with deep yet understated feeling so that musical lines flow naturally from one to the next - a beauty that is everflowing, modulated, sustained. You've got to hear it to believe it. The amazing thing is Cliburn, who possesses such nimble fingers, makes this difficult music seem so effortless. Both Kondrashin and Reiner, as conductors, know their piano man is the star; their support could not be more sensitive and both orchestras engage their soloist in lively dialogue throughout. And then there's the music. There are enough famous themes here even for the neophyte to say, "Haven't I heard this in a movie somewhere?" For the rest of us, these piano concertos take us into the depths of our Romantic soul. Perhaps a lost love, a dream for the future, a great regret, or great hope. Whatever it may be, this music takes us there.*****

Other references: Top recommendation from NPR Guide, Jim Svejda's classical guides, Penguin Guide
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on June 29, 2010
I've noticed that some folks are a tad critical of the treatment, fidelity, balance, pacing, etc. of this performance, not considering when this recording was made. And, perhaps, not recognizing why it was made in the first place.

It reminds me of my reaction to a recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" that I caught mid-stream in the car on WRR radio in Dallas. It thought it was the worst ever. I thought it was rushed, crude and an insult to Gershwin's talent, and I was shaking my fist at the car radio. :-) Afterwards, the announcer came back on and said, "You have just listened, of course, to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, and the composer at the piano." Oh, mannnnnnnn! It was a very low-fidelity recording at 78 rpm. And it was "rushed" because ya just can't get that much recording on a side.

I've had Cliburn's recording of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1, in B-flat minor, since it came out in 1958, as an RCA Victor Red Seal "New Orthophonic" High Fidelity Recording. That's before stereo and the fancy gizmos studios have today. It was then converted to "enhanced stereo" vinyl. Then it made it to 8-track, cassette and now on CD.

Why has it survived through all of these generations of technology? This recording is a classic worth keeping. Nakita Khruschev, the Soviet premier, wanted to show the world that the Soviet Union was a modern, progressive nation. One way of doing this, he thought, was to hold the First Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in April 1958. Van Cliburn, a 23-year-old from Kilgore, Texas, traveled to Moscow to compete. The Concerto No. 1, in B-Flat Minor, was one of his performances at the finals on April 11, 1958, with Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony.

Cliburn became a sinsation during the preliminaries, but at the finals the audience truly went wild. Legend has it that the judges really didn't want to give the competition's first grand prize to a young foreigner, or to any foreigner for that matter. But the audience wouldn't have it any other way and began chanting "first prize! First prize!" at the conclusion of Cliburn's performance of this Concerto.

Afterwards, Cliburn and Kondrashin, an "Honored Artist of the Republic," toured the United States with performances in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. My vinyl record jacket isn't specific, but chances are good that this recording, now available on CD, was made either during rehersals or just after their performance in Carnegie Hall in New York, on May 19, 1958.

And Cliburn's preformance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 is a delightful bonus. That wasn't a possible combination on a single LP vinyl.
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This statement was told by Sviatoslav Richter - one of the members of the Jury - in the first Thaikovsky competition in 1958 . This performance is loaded of such energy and powerful bravura that literally lets you astonished .

Notice these were difficult years in political aspect; the fierce competition for winning the spacial race was in its efervescence peak .
Gleen Gould was sent for the canadian ambassador " to break the ice " and this tour made possible the choice of a very young promise as Van Cliburn was.

The result was anthologic . Cliburn surprised a jury acustomed to listen this piano concert as his familiar battlehorse and virtuosistic features . Van Cliburn won the Prize with all the honors and meant for him his major achievement .

After this glorious triumph Van Cliburn kept a low profile on the following years . This recording is absolutely necessary for you to have it and consider this one as one of the best five performances of this difficult and demanding concerto.

In my personal opinion the other four would be : Richter - Wisloski of the early sixties , Richter 1955 with the Lenningrad orchestra (hard to get it) - and my number one favorite - , Horowitz - Toscanini of the forties and Ashkenazy Maazel of the seventies .
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