While growing up in Omaha, I remember a weekly radio show of choral music on KVNO entitled "Going Beyond Words." With apologies to Stan Schmidt, the host of this excellent program, I will adapt his title to summarize what I feel to be one of the key elements of good musicianship - and one that is all too often lacking from today's young performers.
Instead of using text to illustrate my point, take forty-five minutes and watch this performance of Rach 3 by Van Cliburn from 1958. This famously difficult concerto is played many times each year by pianists and orchestras of all sizes and reputations, but I have never yet heard a more musically coherent performance than this one. First, you will hear exquisitely calibrated phrasing not only from Cliburn's piano, but from Kirill Kondrashin's Moscow Philharmonic - which, by the way, he conducts from memory. These artists are communicating words, sentences and phrases, creating a seamless and fulfilling experience.
Generally, after hearing this concerto one is impressed by technical achievement on the part of the pianist, but may end up thinking (as I must admit that I have) "What a long piece! Couldn't Rachmaninoff have done without a third of that material? It just runs on and on..." I realize now that my problem comes from two things - my own failure as a listener to hear the communicative material on its own terms, and the failure on the part of the performer to shape his or her execution on communicative terms, transcending technique to speak directly to the soul of the audience. Cliburn's and Kondrashin's performance here is a reminder of how profound this music really is. Yes, merely being able to play this piece is an amazing feat for any human being, and any audience will appreciate that feat on a superficial level ("wow, that was so fast!" or "how does she memorize all those notes?"), but here you actually realize the impact great music can have when the artist stops worrying about technique and just sings.
Of course I can't go without highlighting a few particularly impressive examples...listen to the development of the first movement (8:00 and following) for complete awareness of the melodic interplay between soloist and orchestra and an exquisitely calculated buildup until the 10:00 mark; and in the finale at 37:20 for Cliburn singing through gestures that most pianists throw away as impressive passagework, as well as an absolutely enthralling climax to the entire concerto from 42:16 onwards. Oh yes, and Cliburn misses notes here and there. Imagine that. More on that topic later - call it missing the forest for a few brown leaves.
What are your favorite Rach 3 performances? I'd love to hear your comments!