Bill Evans, Rachmaninoff and Van Cliburn

Mike Harris is the Bill Evans devotee who surreptitiously recorded the Evans trio performances that comprise the music in the eight-disc boxed set Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions. Mr. Harris is a classically trained pianist who, long before he became addicted to Evans, learned to play the works of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In this article for Rifftides, he discloses that Evans, too, was a Rachmaninoff fan.

Van Cliburn.jpg (coupled on the DVD with Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, recorded some years later) together with superb recordings of the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos in particular (which are available, along with the Beethoven Emperor and Brahms Second, on separate discs in this series), reveal the young pianist at the very peak of his powers. His use of rhythmic and dynamic accents, along with his rather remarkable hand-mechanics, are but two of the treats awaiting pianists and others who avail themselves of the opportunity to view these live concerts. God bless whoever was behind the retrieval and release of these important historical and musical documents.
The pianist is accompanied on all these discs (other than the solo ones, one of which includes an unforgettable rendition of the original version of the Second Piano Sonata of Rachmaninoff) by the great Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin, whose orchestral support is perfectly attuned and balanced to the pianists’s conception.
One of the interesting stories surrounding this performance of the Third Concerto has it that Sviatoslav Richter (who along with Emil Gilels was serving as a judge for this competition) became so irate at the low scores that he observed his fellow judges awarding Cliburn’s efforts in the early competition (after all, this First International show was intended to display to the world the Soviet Union’s cultural superiority), that he began awarding all Mr. Cliburn’s performances a 10, while awarding all the Soviet pianists scores of zero.
The story goes on to relate how two of the greatest pianists in history, Gilels and Richter, had to go to Premier Khruschev (who by the way is shown, along with Mikoyan, applauding at the end of the video) for permission to give the first-place award to the young American, to which Mr. Khruschev is said to have replied, “If he is the best, then give it to him.” You can buy that version or not, but the end result was certainly as it should have been.
At any rate, political shenanigans aside, the execution of this enormous work (to which I confess a certain affinity, having wrestled with it’s humongous difficulties and sublime beauties for several of the best years of my life) is utterly remarkable. While the 50-year old video-quality could be better, the audio is quite good and neither detracts one whit from the experience.
I am reminded of a statement by the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman to the effect that: “One doesn’t LEARN a Rachmaninoff concerto, one LIVES it!” And amen to that.
All DVD’s in the VAI series are available on Amazon; the Rachmaninoff Concerto DVD, in particular, can be found here


Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit


  1. Martin says

    It seems odd that Evans was attracted to Rachmaninoff’s music, other than the general pull it had for pianists of his generation.
    Rachmaninoff’s was a bravura style and technique and Evans was anything but a bravura player. One would assume Debussy was more important to him.

  2. david says

    True, but Rachmaninoff’s music (put aside his playing style for a moment) has a lot to offer jazz listeners looking for new harmonic/melodic directions. In addition, if you think Evans favored a lighter touch and a more pastel pallete, you should check out his later years, or his final recordings such as “Last Waltz”. Some of the pieces are extremely extroverted, to the point that some listeners don’t like it. I find it a fascinating leap into a new emotional area. Check out the various “takes” of Nardis on “Last Waltz”. It’s very dark stuff.