Down the years with a classic concerto

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If someone mentions piano concertos, most people instantly think of Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto. To mention that work, more often than not, is to conjure up memories of Van Cliburn. Cliburn was 23 when he became the first American to win a gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, in April of 1958. He returned to the United States a national hero, and his recording of the ever-popular work became an instant best seller. It is, in fact, the best-selling record in classical music history.

RCA recently reissued the performance on its spiffy Red Seal .5 Series (ATL1- 4099), giving it a new sonic profile. The sound is more than acceptable, and the performance is full of warmth and passion. That Cliburn never really fulfilled his promise is one of the sadder realities of today's musical life. But at least we have this performance (and those of several other concertos) to remind us of his formidable talent.

Zubin Mehta may not be quite as in tune with Emil Gilels as Kondrashin was with Cliburn, but the Gilels/Mehta performance of the Tchaikovsky at Avery Fisher Hall in 1980 proved to be an exceptional live performance of this overworked piece. CBS Masterworks has issued the live performance (DIGITAL IM- 36660), and what a document it is!

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This is leonine playing, yet he never shirks the rhapsodic beauty of the concerto. Gilels represents the master's approach after a lifetime of living with the work. He gets more mood and meaning out of the music than one might have thought possible. Mehta's work is particularly fine in the frenzied moments , and he is clearly listening to Gilels and complementing the pianist's ideas. The sound is adequate, considering its live-concert venue.

The idea of Claudio Arrau putting his most recent views of such a familiar work on disc is a welcome one. Alas, the recording (PHILIPS 9500 695) is disappointing on just about every count. Arrau offers some lovely details along the way, but the deliberate tempo speaks more of low energy level than of artistic probing. Colin Davis conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra rather perfunctorily. The sound on this record is about as poor as I ever hope to hear from a company with such high audio standards.

Then there's Andrei Gavrilov - who was on the verge of a stupendous career in the US. All that was needed was some word of mouth about this Russian firebrand. . . . But then Afghanistan happened, and with it the cessation of all artistic exchange between the US and the USSR. So we have to content ourselves with recordings. Here (ANGEL SZ-37679), he gives his now-mercurial, now-serious, always engaging views of the Tchaikovsky concerto to the somewhat faceless accompaniment of Riccardo Muti and the New York Philharmonic. The sound is quite open, the piano sounds natural, and the orchestra plays handsomely for Muti.

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