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My own record shelves evolved from my Father’s collection. He even had a cabinet built to protect 78 rpm records, but as LPs appeared they found their way to shelves in the lower half of a cupboard known, for an obvious reason, as the ‘Drinks’ Cupboard’. Usually on Friday afternoons on the way back from the offi ce Dad would drop in on Rae, Mackintosh & Co. Ltd, Edinburgh’s serious music shop then on George Street, in the New Town, where in those good old days one could buy a piano or glockenspiel, perhaps, as well as records. Our family bought all three, but that’s another story. Later in my teens, when I started to collect, this ritual was upgraded to a Saturday afternoon assault on The Record Exchange, a humbler south-side shop of deletions and budget labels run by a man whom we thought later must have been the model for Colombo.

Dad’s collecting was often of the latest thing. And, like Gary Graffman, whose ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy we revered, Van Cliburn would certainly have been a ‘latest thing’, but I do not recall him on the shelves – no, this LP came to me much later and is in fact a South African pressing published at the same time as the American release.

The late Van Cliburn enjoyed the traditional poisoned chalice after-life of winning a major competition: it made and unmade him. In his case he won the first Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, in 1958, and became America’s answer to Yuri Gagarin, with a ticker-tape triumphant return along Wall Street and an unending sequence of concerto appearances. In Europe this was probably seen as a shade too flashy and political and the laden story haunted his career. By the age of 40 he had withdrawn more or less altogether.

The cover illustration – a photograph by one Alan Kayes – is a carefully poised piece of propaganda, showing the Brando/Dean pianist in thoughtful conference with a doyen of Old European grand style, Fritz Reiner, the pair of them looking, curiously enough, not at an early edition of the concerto, say, but at an LP sleeve being taken from an envelope. You might mock and observe from Reiner’s body language that Van Cliburn may have overdone the after-shave, but this was exactly how his success unmade him, as he was often taken to be no more than a dishy flash-harry. His modest, respectfully poised 1966 recordings of Beethoven’s Op.81a and Mozart’s K.330 sonatas were not enough to undo this.

Yet this account of the Schumann concerto is a fascinating rebuff to the ‘image’, unshowy and with a bloom that more scampering pianists fail to achieve. Phrases breathe and the ubiquitous exchanges with the woodwind are expressively done. Reiner must have had decisive wisdom to offer here, but Van Cliburn has known what to do with it. The slow movement has what I’d call a cumulative rubato that leads knowingly into the obsessive finale. I say ‘obsessive’ because, if you get Schumann right, that’s what’s up so often in his music; if you get it wrong you’re left with mere ‘repetitive’. At first I thought the tempo a shade slow, with almost too much detail to be dealt with in the coffee-percolator bubblesome passages, but a sensitive strategy of shifting emphasis in the phrasing brings new colour to the free-wheeling interludes and then to an exuberant close.

It must have seemed mean or self-important to give you only the Schumann on one record and the performance doesn’t dent my fondness especially for Lipatti, for instance, or Hess or Schnabel or – yes, so many, since it’s a concerto that on the one hand is a devil to bring off but which does give pianists room to be themselves. Van Cliburn drinks deep from this the perfect poisoned chalice!

JONATHAN BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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