Jed Distler’s Cliburn Blog No 13: The Cliburn on Record

Ahead of The Cliburn finals, our correspondent reviews the competition on file

As we eagerly anticipate the final stages of The Cliburn, I want to take advantage of this non-performance day to talk about The Cliburn on record.

Many archival performances of past Cliburn contests have been published over the years in various formats. They tend not to stay in print for long, although some items may be easier to find than others. I don’t know if anyone has compiled a complete The Cliburn on Record discography, or written a complete guide. However, I will try to give you an informal overview of the releases which I think could be a good starting point for piano lovers and curious collectors of The Cliburn archives.

Between 1997 and 1999, the VAI label released nine CD versions covering performances dating from 1962 to 1993. Volume 4 (VAIA 1156), for example, documents the first two competitions. It is of particular interest for its inclusion of 1966 gold medalist Radu Lupu in the first movement of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto. Lupu never recorded this work commercially, nor was he known to have played a Prokofiev for that matter.

Volume 3 (VAIA 1147) focuses on the winners of 1969. I cherish this record because it fleshes out the late Minoru Nojima’s meager discography with a musical sonata by Bartók and an unfettered Liszt Wisps which contrasts with the pianist’s gauze-tinged studio recording for Reference Records: the latter caught the eye when he appeared as part of the Liszt Transcendental Studies release credited to Joyce Hatto. And if you can find volume 2 (VAIA 1146), grab it, because it contains Schumann C Major Fantasy by 1977 bronze medalist Jeffrey Swann, one of the most passionate and sincere interpretations of this enormous work that I know.

Years ago, in a charity shop in London, I came across an elusive out-of-print two-disc set featuring the 1989 winners (Teldec 246103-2) and picked it up. We understand why the victory of the late Alexei Sultanov polarized pianists. A colleague of mine called it “A BMW without a driver” (he described Alexei Gavrilov in exactly the same way) and, indeed, Sultanov’s Beethoven Appassionata and Chopin’s B minor sonatas are about as subtle as Led Zeppelin. However, Gavrilov behaved in playing the required commission work of that year, William Schumann Chester. By contrast, the cleverly crafted readings of Schumann’s and Brahms’ Opus 9 variation sets with José Carlos Cocarelli stand the test of time better, as do Benedetto Lupo’s Chopin Scherzo No. 2 and the Sonata for Piano No. 2 by Rachmaninoff.

The latter work appears on the release of 1997 gold medalist Simone Pedroni, as well as Mussorgsky Pictures at an exhibition and Hindemith’s ‘1922’ Suite, praised by Bryce Morrison in Gramophone for the pianist’s “classical strength and maturity” (Philips 438-905). Personally, I preferred the disc shared by the finalists (Philips 438-906), where Valery Kuleshov navigates effortlessly through five Liszt Transcendental Studiesand Christopher Taylor makes an impressive light of Boulez’s Second Sonata.

I direct readers to Gramophonethe cover of the various Harmonia Mundi CDs documenting the Cliburns from 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013, as well as the Decca download and limited physical CD releases covering 2017. The Cliburn itself has downloaded a massive amount of performances from 2001, 2005 and 2009 available to download or stream, and not just with top winners.

For example, I cited the robust and soulful performance of Robert Plano’s Cliburn 2005 as a download choice for my 2007 Gramophone Collector’s item on Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor. I love the overflowing creativity of Alessandro Deljavan’s 2009 Preliminary Round Sonata in B Minor, and the way Alexei Koltakov dared to push things to the brink in his reading of the 2001 Semi-Final Elizabeth Joy Roe’s Ravel The waltz from 2005 may be under many piano enthusiasts’ radars, but it’s an incredibly over-the-top performance that belongs in any serious collection. While Beethoven 2013 by Sean Chen and Beethoven 2009 by Nobuyuki Tsuji hammer keyboard Sonata Cliburn’s performances drew intense scrutiny, few remember how Maria Mazo boldly and successfully released Opus 106 in her 2005 preliminaries. Although the top prizes in 2005 and 2009 eluded Stephen Beus, all of his performances at Cliburn are worth savoring.

It remains to be seen whether The Cliburn will also generously upload material from 2013, 2017 and, indeed, 2022 – I fervently hope so!

To watch more videos of the performances described above, visit the Cliburn International Piano Competition website:

Gramophone is media partner of the Cliburn International Piano Competition

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