MUSIC / Out of Texas: David Patrick Stearns on Van Cliburn's comeback concert at Hollywood Bowl

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The Independent Culture
When Van Cliburn opened his first US tour in 16 years at the Hollywood Bowl on Monday night, it was one of those perversely fascinating events that one loves to tell children, spouses and friends about, although it made one cringe at the time.

After playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 and narrating Copland's A Lincoln Portrait with the Moscow Philharmonic, Cliburn failed to return after the interval, eventually announcing that he was experiencing dizzy spells and didn't feel up to playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 3. Instead, he played four encores for solo piano, including Chopin's Scherzo in C sharp minor and Liszt's transcription of Schumann's 'Widmung'.

And that wasn't the oddest part of the spectacle. Following the encores, Cliburn was presented with a huge, piano- shaped birthday card to commemorate his 60th birthday (on 12 July) by a man wearing what appeared to be an equally huge cowboy hat. This turned out to be the pop singer Johnny Mathis. After all, this was Hollywood Bowl.

Were it any artist other than Cliburn - or anyone who wasn't charging a top price of dollars 250 - it wouldn't have been so disappointing. Cliburn has been stingy with himself in recent years, giving concerts only sporadically and mostly in his home state of Texas. This tour promised to redress that, particularly with its challenging, all-Van programme, which, if performed with the romantic sweep of his younger years, could re-establish him as one of the few American pianists performing in the grand manner.

As it was, the concert was just another tantalising but unsatisfying tease, partly because of Cliburn's choice of orchestra and conductor. The Moscow Philharmonic was either extremely jet-lagged or has grown artistically bankrupt, particularly in its rather unmusical version of A Lincoln Portrait, which is too much of a reflective, philosophical piece to be a good opening selection anyway.

One could accept the Copland - and Cliburn's impassioned but not terribly well- calculated reading of it - as something the pianist needs to stave off stage-fright. And to a certain extent, it worked. Cliburn was on pretty good form for the Tchaikovsky, with his characteristic gleaming sonorities, dazzling digital clarity, explosive octaves and highly personal, quasi- operatic characterisation.

But many of his more subtle expressive devices were undercut by the conductor, Vassily Sinaisky, whom Cliburn selected apparently for sentimental reasons. He was assistant to Kiril Kondrashin, who had conducted Cliburn's prize-winning performance at the 1958 Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition.

Far from being a creative mind that Cliburn could play off, Sinaisky was merely literal, responding to the pianist's elastic tempi by slowing to a leaden pace. The two seemed to veer further apart as the piece went on and, by the third movement, were hardly together at all.

I wouldn't have wanted to attempt the Rachmaninov with such a conductor. As unprofessional as it may have seemed to opt for encores, Cliburn may have spared his audience a far greater horror.