Van Cliburn has been called “the most famous pianist of the 20th century, even a household name.” And next to his recording of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, Van Cliburn’s album My Favorite Chopin, recorded when he was just 23, has been one of the biggest-selling classical records in history – and possibly the best-selling Chopin disc of all time. It spent more than half a year atop the Billboard charts when it was released in 1962, justifying Van Cliburn’s fat RCA Victor contract that at the time was the largest for any musicians in ANY musical genre. No surprise then, that side one, cut one for the Cold War hero’s Chopin would be the “Heroic” Polonaise.
Van Cliburn came by his Chopin honestly, though; long before he won the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow he was named the winner of the prestigious Chopin Award from the Polish-American Kosciuszko Foundation. And in the original liner notes, Van Cliburn was quick to point out that the selections on My Favorite Chopin “…are by no means all of my favorite; they are only a fraction of the many Chopin compositions that give me heartfelt pleasure.”
“Out of Chopin’s creativity,” Van Cliburn continuted, “came a complete repertoire…so rich in variety of mood, style, and architecture that one can listen to two or even three successive all-Chopin evenings and find intense satisfaction.”After a half-century, Critical opinion about Van Cliburn’s Chopin remains divided; consumer opinion about one of the truly iconic recordings of the 1960s does not: This recent online posting from Australia is typical: “I loved this album so much I have bought it four times; I wore out two vinyl copies and a CD. This is the best pianist of the 20th century playing some of the best piano music ever written.” - Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr & Benjamin K. Roe