Sometimes one dusts off an old LP and is surprised to find an excellent performance of a work he previously thought to be merely competent or slightly above average. In the age of the CD, where remastering processes can enhance recordings that were encumbered by bad surfaces or a constricted dynamic range, the same effect can occur. Whether my tepid reaction to Van Cliburn's performance of the Liszt B minor Sonata in the mid-1970s was partly due to RCA's processing or to my own misjudgment, I cannot say. The only thing that can be said is that this performance is one of the most compelling on record. The recent Pollini reissue on Philips' Great Pianists Series clocks in with an almost identical timing (twenty-nine minutes-plus), but is a far less effective rendering in its straightforward predictability.
Cliburn's approach here is passionate and big, favoring clarity of line at all times. Whenever any important motif appears, he points it up almost pedantically. Yet, he does so with imagination and a fine sense for drama. The big tolling-bell chords that come at 9:44 have a crushing impact here, and the poetry in all the slower sections comes through with incredible sensitivity. If Cliburn has a weakness, it might be in his pedaling, which can turn into too much of a good thing and at times impart a slight haze to the sonic happenings. Still, this is one of the finest recordings this sonata has received. Argerich and Horowitz probably still have a slim edge, but Cliburn's reading is a valid, compelling alternative view to their more blood-and-thunder approaches.
The other works here fare well, too. Un Sospiro and Liebestraum #3 are played with just the right mixture of sentimentality and drama. Both Consolations are given rather straightforward and wholly effective performances, as well. The Petrarchian Sonnet is not quite as successful, Cliburn's dynamics favoring mezzo-forte and forte a little too much throughout.
Of the fillers here, the most attractive is the Mephisto Waltz #1. Cliburn begins at as swift a tempo as I've ever heard, and he goes on to impart a sense of menace and mystery, of passion and presentiment throughout. The slow music comes through with the requisite sensual twistedness, and Cliburn's ability to color with well-judged rubato and a wide range of dynamics is impressive.
Cliburn was said to be past his prime in the 1970s, despite his still relatively young age. Yet, this reissue of performances from 1972-75 clearly demonstrates the talent he then possessed. His many Chopin recordings, Brahms Second Concerto, Rachmaninoff Second Sonata and Prokofieff Sixth Sonata have been widely praised, and this Liszt collection must join that select company.
Copyright © 2000, Robert Cummings