Deep in the heart of the Cold War, there was once a miracle in Moscow – Texas-based classical pianist Van Cliburn, of whom no one had heard, conquered at the First Tchaikovsky Competition, an event set aside to showcase Soviet talent. Cliburn was warned by his own government not to go, given the tense political relationship between the United States and Soviet Union at the time, and once he arrived he was greeted as a party crasher, subject to hostile stares and animosity of the kind he had never dreamed of back in Texas. And it was Cliburn, at the end, which brought down the house, and held the award. Back in America, he was greeted with a ticker tape parade and was the subject of a best-selling biography by Abram Chasins, The Van Cliburn Story, copies of which continue to clog the shelves of American thrift stores five decades hence. Ultimately, though, Cliburn's celebrity lost its luster. Nerves, ultra-picky perfectionism, and mishandling by management led to his early retirement from the concert scene; his greatest latter-day achievement being the force behind the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, America's most prestigious such event.
The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 3 is rarely heard, though it is a finely crafted work worth greater attention. It has suffered alongside the magnificent and superior Second and the ever-popular First. Moreover, it is not a bona fide concerto at all, the composer having completed only the first movement before his sudden death in 1893. Contrary to the suggestion of a few, it is highly unlikely he intended to produce a one-movement concerto. Tchaikovsky wrote two other piano pieces the same year bearing the titles "Andante" and "Finale," respectively. Following his death, Taneyev orchestrated these and attached them to the Concerto, though Tchaikovsky had left no indication they were to be a part of it. But the pair did share something in common with the completed first movement: a theme source – the incomplete Symphony No. 7. In any event, the opening movement of this Concerto is the most compelling, featuring an exuberant main theme whose first two notes are the central melodic element. An attractive slow melody is soon presented, followed by a theme of great vivacity and rhythmic drive.
Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos has been known for high-powered Liszt performances and for gee-whiz transcriptions of works like Mozart's Rondo alla turca that seem to add an impossible collection of polyphonic lines to the music. All that could have been expected from this 2003 recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, was another big, powerful interpretation to join the others already out there.
This 2014 Decca release of two famous Russian piano concertos, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor and Sergey Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, cannot be faulted for a lack of practice, because Behzod Abduraimov has played these works on numerous occasions. In 2009, he won the London International Piano Competition with his fiery reading of the Prokofiev, and in 2014 he took the Tchaikovsky on tour internationally, so there's only a question of how fresh the playing can be after numerous performances. Chalk it up to youthful resilience or personal charisma, but Abduraimov shows abundant energy and brilliance, qualities that aren't worn down by the physical demands of these works. If anything, he appears to relish the opportunity to play them with different conductors and orchestras, each time giving his all in collaborative efforts that have won critical praise everywhere he has performed.