Documentary fails to show pianists' skills

Review: The PBS show on the 2001 Van Cliburn competition is offkey when it comes to showing off gist of the music.

October 17, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When a gangly young Texan pianist named Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958, in the midst of the Cold War, he became an instant American hero. The irony of his career is that he couldn't top that moment in history; within a decade, questions were being raised about limited repertoire and limited interpretive imagination. He never really lost his status as a legend; he just had trouble living up to it.

The same has been said of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which he founded in 1962. Within a few years, questions were being raised about the caliber and staying power of winners. The competition has never really lost its importance; it's just had trouble living up to expectations.

The 2001 Van Cliburn competition, chronicled tonight at 10:30 on PBS (WETA, Channel 26), has propelled four pianists into the limelight - two gold medalists, Stanislav Ioudenitch and Olga Kern; and two silver medalists, Maxim Philippov and Antonio Pompa-Baldi. How long they will stay there is anyone's guess, but there's no denying the genuine level of keyboard virtuosity involved.

Not that you would know it from watching The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge. The documentary, by Peter Rosen, is long on backstage hugs and jitters, maddeningly short on actual music, let alone any meaningful discussion on why the jury chose these four laureates out of the original 30 competitors.

You can certainly get a sense of the pressures of the competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. The 17-day event, with lots of prize money and concert engagements at stake, is enough to frazzle anyone's nerves. (Anti-smoking messages apparently haven't gotten through to the young keyboard set; lots of cigarettes are frantically puffed.)

But out of 600 hours of videotape, shot by nine camera crews, the documentary barely scratches the surface of what puts pianists on the edge, or whether it's worth it. (As one laments, "I didn't have any fun here.")

Although the snippets from performances get exponentially longer as we progress toward the finals, there's still never enough to reveal the defining characteristics of the players.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to the sound bites. Harmonia Mundi has just released a single CD each of Ioudenitch and Kern, and another shared by Philippov and Pompa-Baldi, all recorded at the competition.

The Ioudenitch recital (HMU 907290) reveals a probing, highly sensitive pianist whose poetic way with some of Schubert's Moments musicaux is sublime. Kern, too, excels in making Schubert sing eloquently, but a volcanic, slightly quirky account of the Wagner-Liszt Liebestod is particularly impressive (HMU 907289). Both of these fleet-fingered victors sound as if they have what it takes to make a lasting career.

Pompa-Baldi reveals appealing insights in works by Chopin, Poulenc and others; Philippov delivers finely detailed and strongly emotive playing in some Rachmaninoff Preludes (HMU 907292).

Piano lovers waiting for another Horowitz or Rubinstein - or Cliburn, for that matter - may not feel the wait is over after viewing the mildly diverting, sometimes mundane PBS show or even listening to the potent recordings. To be sure, the lucky four from the 11th Van Cliburn competition still have a few things to learn about that elusive thing called style.

But this still sounds like the most promising - and exciting - crop of Cliburn winners in years.

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