RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. Prelude in E flat, Op. 23 No. 6. SCHUMANN-LISZT: Widmung. "Moscow Nights" (arr. Cliburn)"
Van Cliburn, pianist; Moscow Philharmonic Orch/Kiril Kondrashin, cond.
VAI DVD VIDEO 4454 TT: 95 min.

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73. Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98.
Boston Symphony Orch/Leonard Bernstein, cond.
MEDICI ARTS DVD VIDEO 2072136 TT: 86 min + 8 min "bonus"

'GOD ROT TUNBRIDGE WELLS' - The Life of Georg Frederic Handel (Tony Palmer Film)
TONY PALMER FILMS PDVD114 TT: 1 ht. 59 min.

Here is the third release in Video Artists International's release of Van Cliburn concerto performances recorded in Russia. We can watch the Texan pianist striding confidently to the piano and playing magnificent, bold performances of the two Rachmaninoff concertos. Chemistry between Van Cliburn and Kondrashin is remarkable. Concerto No. 3, a specialty of the pianist, is played without cuts except for several repeated bars in the first movement cadenza (he plays the expanded version, the norm for decades). This performance was from a concert presented immediately after Cliburn won the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 and includes three encores ending with Van Cliburn's modest arrangement of Moscow Nights. The pianist visited Russia many times between 1960 and 1972, and this performance of Concerto No. 2 is from the last year. Audio is acceptable and one can easily accept occasional distortion for the opportunity to hear these splendid, historic performances. Video is problematic. The 1958 film has a distracting faded center throughout, but again the collector can easily accept this. We can see Van Cliburn wiping off the keyboard before Concerto No. 3, to the amusement of the audience, which is highly responsive—and rather restless—throughout. Camera work is disappointing, usually focused on the pianist as it should be, but shots of the orchestra often are not well coordinated, and there are too many shots of the audience. This is a major release!

Leonard Bernstein had a long relationship with the Boston Symphony; in his youth he attended many concerts conducted by Serge Koussevitzky and later studied intensively with him. Bernstein conducted the American premiere of Peter Grimes, a concert performance with the BSO in 1946, three years after he made his memorable debut with the New York Philharmonic substituting for an indisposed Bruno Walter. Bernstein returned often to Boston as conductor and played an important part in the Tanglewood Festival. This video of two Brahms symphonies was made August 22, 1972. An informal atmosphere prevails, members of the BSO and Bernstein are in casual dress, and the performances are expert. Color photography is adequate, the stereo sound typical of outdoor concerts. The camera often is on Bernstein, and, fortunately, this was before he began discovering angst on every page. An 8-minute "bonus" features Bernstein discussing his relationship with the BSO and Tanglewood. If you have an interest in early Bernstein, this is for you.

Tony Palmer's film is an eccentric look at the life of Georg Frederic Handel, originally shown in 1985 on the BBC to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Handel's birth. John Osborne wrote the script and the title supposedly is taken from a letter Handel indignantly wrote after visiting the Tunbridge Wells Ladies' Music Circle to hear a performance of "their Messiah" shortly before he died. Apparently the performance was dreadful, Handel stayed only for the first part and when he returned home wrote a scathing letter that finished with "so God rot Tunbridge Wells." Trevor Howard plays the elderly Handel, David Griffiths is the middle-aged Handel, and Christopher Bramwell is the young composer. There are many performance scenes, and lots of music all conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. The film was blasted by critics of the time. Actually, it is quite entertaining, particularly after reading Palmer's feisty DVD notes. Color photography is OK, as is the mono sound. Subtitles are supplied in five languages, fortunately including English for those who have a difficult time deciphering the Brit accent.

R.E.B. (August 2008)