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Classical 101

The Olympics of the Piano: The 2009 Van Cliburn Competition

ADAM - TWO AUDIO PIECES Pianists have flocked to Fort Worth like swallows to Capistrano.  Nearly everywhere, it seems, the ivories are being tickled.  Tensions are running high in the desert. Must be time for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This year marks the thirteenth Van Cliburn competition, which takes place only every four years, under the auspices of the Van Cliburn Foundation.  So far this year, 29 invited contestants from around the world have been pared down to six finalists representing Bulgaria, Korea, Japan, Italy and China. Among the judges are Joseph Kalichstein and Menachem Pressler, two pianists whose discographies are poised to dominate the annals of pianism for generations to come. Even though a couple of generations of brilliant pianists have come to pass the since Van Clibrun's more or less permanent departure from the concert stage years ago (save for his return to public performing after a 1987 White House concert before Mikhail Gorbachev), I have yet to come across a pianist whose performances generate the kind of energy his do. There has never been a better recording of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# Minor than the one Cliburn made  in the early 1970s, more than a decade after his astonishing and politically charged mid-Cold War win at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  Just listen to the hearbeat of the music, and listen to Cliburn's pacing: [audio:rachmaninoff_prelude_in_c_cliburn.mp3] And listen to the dignified understatement in his recording of the opening of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.  The phrase  unfolds in perfect arcs, utterly unforced.  Cliburn tells us through his interpretation that Rachmaninoff's long-breathed melody needs no interference from the artist: [audio:rachmaninoff_third_piano_concerto_cliburn.mp3] Most pianists today don't seem to go for quite this level of subtlety.  Maybe this year's competition winners--doubtlessly all consummate technicians--will take this lesson from the master and bring classical pianism back to the glory days the competition's namesake helped usher in. You might like to keep track of this year's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition on the competition's blog.  The competition winners will be announced this Sunday at 5 p.m. Texas time.  Stay tuned. --Jennifer Hambrick