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Van Cliburn, 1934-2013

By (February 28, 2013) No Comment

van_cliburnHis repertoire was small, he was no barnstormer, and he gave up full-time concertizing in 1978. But Van Cliburn, who died yesterday at age 78, is to this day the most famous pianist America has ever produced.

His mother, who trained at Julliard, taught him until he was seventeen, when he became a pupil of the great Rosina Lhevinne. He won the prestigious Leventritt Award in 1955, but it was his surprise win three years later at Russia’s first International Tchaikovsky Competition, assiduously covered by Max Frankel of the New York Times, that made him a phenomenon. The competition, coming only six months after the voyage of Sputnik, was intended to demonstrate Russian dominance in the arts, but it was Cliburn who was peerless (his standing ovation after the final round lasted for eight minutes). The judges, with permission from Nikita Khrushchev, gave him first prize, and he returned to America a national hero, feted with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway’s great canyon, the only classical musician in history so honored.

The requisite Time cover story likened him to “Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one.” This was pure blarney: Cliburn was nothing like them. He had little of Liberace or Presley’s easy showmanship, and he never played anything faster or louder than anyone, as Vladimir Horowitz often did. What Cliburn had was a marvelous tone and, at his best, a musician’s sense of proportion and drama. Few pianists of the last century have produced such gorgeous sounds from the piano, and of those fewer still were able to wed them convincingly to the architecture of the music they interpreted, to shape the sounds into narrative. In a word, what Cliburn’s playing had was romance.

This made him most suitable to Russian music – he played more Rachmaninov than anything else; his warhorse was the Tchaikovsky First Concerto – and the Romantics: Liszt, Chopin, Grieg and the rest. Cliburn’s Mozart and Beethoven were less successful, and he avoided Baroque music. But there is a thrilling live account of Beethoven’s Appassionata, from 1958, which suggests that, fine as he was, Cliburn could have developed further as an artist. And it is possible, even probable, that his role as a Cold War hero got in the way.

America loves its idols harshly. Everywhere he went, Cliburn was besieged with requests to play the Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky that won him fame, and he was too kind to refuse. Clean-cut, handsome, a devout Baptist from Texas, he seemed made for symbolism, and this too he obliged, opening every concert with the Star-Spangled Banner, meeting every engagement (to the neglect of his practice), and hiding his homosexuality.

By the time Van Cliburn retired in 1978, after the deaths of his father and manager, his playing had grown stale. Thankfully his story did not end there. He returned years later to intermittent concertizing. Of course he played the old favorites, including the Tchaikovsky First, but he did it now with some of the old magic.

I was listening to Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky today and it made me remember something from years ago. I was working at a bookstore, and the store played whatever the record companies paid them to play, and most of it was dreadful. One rainy day, as I was walking through the store, past my water-logged customers and dreary co-workers, I heard those famous opening horns. Some daring (or foolish!) young employee in the music section had put on Cliburn’s 1958 recording of the First Concerto with Krill Kondrashin at the podium. The malaise quietly fled the room. People were smiling and humming and bringing their faces up, and they didn’t even know why. A few caught themselves, stopped and looked around, before they realized it was the music. I glided through the rest of the day on that feeling. The Tchaikovsky is a wonderful piece, but it takes something to really make it sing, and Van Cliburn had it.