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Cliburn Clunker

Legendary pianist can't live up to his own famous 'First'

By Philip Collins

FANS LINED the front of the stage, waving, applauding, holding out flowers and open hands to legendary keyboardist Van Cliburn. It was the kind of frenzied response that is reserved for superstars--as opposed to exalted music-making, of which there was little Saturday night at San Jose Symphony's gala concert featuring the celebrated virtuoso in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

How many times Cliburn has played Tchaikovsky's "First" is a matter for his chroniclers to determine, but figure it easily in the upper hundreds, if not thousands. Considering that Cliburn's 1958 recording of the work was the first classical album to ever go platinum, it's understandable that he still feels obliged to perform it so regularly.

Listening to Cliburn's luminous, vintage recording of the Tchaikovsky prior to Saturday's concert could only lead to disappointment. Here was one of the most formidable undertakings that the concerto literature has to offer, and the American pianist who tamed it so incomparably 38 years ago. It was a standard that no artist could relish living up to, and Cliburn's efforts to outshine his own shadow clearly taxed his abilities.

Though some difference between then and now may stem from Cliburn's evolving take on the piece, his subtleties of reinterpretation were eclipsed by technical inconsistencies and an overall dampening of nuance.

Rapid octave passagework came off rivetingly for the most part--more percussive than pianistic. Although his accuracy increased during the course of the work, the faster episodes seldom took on much shape or finesse. Missing was the fluency and command that were characteristic of the pianist's youthful jaunts through the piece.

As for orchestral support, that, too, was uneven. The first movement suffered most. Rapport between the pianist and orchestra varied a lot, and only occasionally did the two blend convincingly. From the start, Cliburn's rubatos were met with uncertainty, and as the movement progressed, coordination proved a recurrent problem. In particular, it undermined several of the movement's lively syncopated episodes.

The strings held steady contrast to all the pyrotechnics with gently voiced treatments of the movement's secondary theme, led handsomely by the violins.

The trombones and upper brass were robust and brilliant in their sectional work, reminiscent of the piano's opening heroics. Oboist Pamela Hakl and clarinetist Michael Corner both lent exquisite solos and obliggatos during the movement's more rhapsodic moments.

The music was generally more on track in the second movement, with its gentle, more evenly tempered climates. Here Cliburn evoked an expansiveness through his combination of legato touch and discrete pedaling.

The pianist's poise infused the movement's outer andante sections with an intimacy that dramatically countered the allegro's turbulence. The scherzo, though, was a rougher ride than one had anticipated.

The finale flew--as it should--unstoppable as Beethoven and twice more elegantly. Cliburn sustained Tchaikovsky's egalitarian airs, fastidiously accountable to phrase and tone color while negotiating the movement's breakneck demands.

THE PROGRAM'S first half was given over to Russian pop, marinated in mediocrity. Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Mussorgsky's Prelude and Dance of the Persian Maidens from Khovanshchina, Borodin's Nocturne from String Quartet No. 2 and Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor are hardly mediocre by nature--there is not a lemon among them-- but rehearsal time clearly went to the Tchaikovsky, and Music Director Leonid Grin's leadership during the first half was invariably routine.

As if acquiescent about such details as dynamics, contour, accompanimental patterning, etc., the conductor waved through the lot, often at tempi that were unaccommodating to melodic clarity or inhospitable to instrumentalists. Exceptions cropped up in solo work. Flutist Maria Tamburrino's solos in both the Borodin works consisted of utmost sweetness, and Corner's clarinet provided ongoing refreshments.

Hakl's Moorish twists in the Mussorgsky curled about in smoky allure, and concertmaster Byung-Woo Kim's featured role in the Nocturne, was fetching, if not unblemished.

As for ensemble, the performances lacked character and detail. Textures were of nominal resonance, coalesced just enough to get by, and seldom evolving toward any noteworthy ends.

In light of the steep ticket prices set for this gala program, one would've hoped to encounter performances of less compromised quality.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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