Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge": 2001 competition in Texas shown on Netflix DVD


The DVD “The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge” traces six pianists through the Cliburn competition in Fort Worth, TX in 2001. The contestants (5 men and one woman) seem to come from Russia or former Soviet republics (one from Italy) or Eastern European countries.

The first side of the DVD is an 80 minute film directed by Peter Rosen, showing the contestants going through practice sessions, often playing music of Prokofiev and Liszt (such as Hungarian Rhapsody #6). They work with conductor James Conlon for the concerto competition. Conlon encourages them to respect the orchestra’s limits, and keeping tempi in sync is a real issue.

The pianists have to be careful about injury, and at least one male wears wrist bands to protect himself from carpal tunnel.

At the end of the first part, two second place winners and two first place winners are announced.

The second side shows the two first place winners perform concerti (on a Steinway). Stanislaw Toudenich plays the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat minor. We all know the introductory D-flat major tune that never returns, but the entire first movement, with its dance rhythms and calculated B-flar major climax, is masterly.

Olga Kern plays the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3 in D Minor. This work is the composer’s masterpiece, taking us on a life-summarizing adventure based on a simple plain-song tune that introduces the work. Kern uses the Ossia cadenza in the first movement. The harmonies and mannerism work perfectly even if there is a lot of use of the dominant A major and a lot of diminished chords; the effect never becomes trite, as it could with less gifted or skilled composers. The big tune climax and presto-race-to-the-finish come off perfectly. I’ve always thought of this as a “man’s concerto”, but Olga gets really into the excitement of the conclusion.

Did Rachmaninoff know the early D’Albert B minor concerto, which I’ve discussed before? I suspect he did. The way the climaxes are prepared seem strikingly parallel now. The Op 32 preludes, the last of which is the grandiose D-flat major, prepare the pianist for the Third Concerto.

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