Van Cliburn R.I.P. (July 12, 1934 - February 27, 2013)


The quintessentially American story of classical piano hero Van Cliburn -- the Texan who at the height of the Cold War won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, when he was 23 years old, received a ticker tape parade in New York City on his return (as shown at left), made the first million-selling classical album, and (mostly) retired at age 44, having shrewdly invested his earnings in real estate -- is told in carefully balanced detail in Anthony Tommasini's lengthy obituary for The New York Times.

That obit includes the fact that some said that Cliburn didn't live up to his potential as a pianist, outside of his favorite repertoire, he did not always play with equal inspiration. While greater versatility would have been commendable, the same charge could be aimed at many pianists. In his comfort zone, though -- the music of Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and of course Tchaikovsky -- Cliburn played with a combination of poetry and virtuosity that remains timeless, with beautiful tone and luscious legato of the old school.

You don't have to take my word for it. One of the jurors at that 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition was Emil Gilels, the second-greatest Russian pianist of his generation. After the final round, Gilels went backstage and hugged Cliburn. Not to impugn in the slightest the artistic sincerity of Gilels's gesture, but that took place after official word had come down that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was okay with Cliburn winning. Bolder was the greatest Russian pianist of his generation, Sviatoslav Richter, a man who placed artistry above all else. From the very beginning of the competition, as a juror Richter had made his sentiments crystal clear. The scoring was on a scale of 1 to 10, but each round, Richter awarded 100 points to Cliburn, 0 to everybody else. (This anecdote comes from Harold Schonberg's wonderful book The Great Pianists; he adds that the Soviets did not invite Richter to judge future competitions.)

Here are a few albums that show Cliburn at his best.

At some point in RCA's CD reissues of the far-from-prolific Cliburn's catalog, all of his composer-themed solo recitals were dubbed My Favorite [composer's name], which might seem like a cheap marketing move except that in his case, it was probably true. He wasn't the kind of performer who went for complete sets of anything, and with his level of fame, he could do whatever he wanted. In any case, this album really was entitled My Favorite Chopin when it first appeared. It's a subjective determination, of course, but to me it seems that his love for the pieces he chose shines through every performance here, and his approach and technique were perfectly geared to Chopin's exquisite pianistic vocabulary.
Another well-chosen program, highlighted of course by the mighty Sonata in a vivid performance.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
w/Boston Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
(RCA Living Stereo, 1964)
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83; MacDowell: Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 23
w/Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (Brahms), Walter Hendl (McDowell)
(RCA Living Stereo, 1960-61)
There are those who insinuate that Cliburn was fine in showpieces but couldn't hold his own in the music of the most serious composers. True, his Beethoven playing could be stiff, but at this point nobody thinks Brahms was a lightweight, and this is absolutely ravishing Brahms playing, especially in the Second Concerto, where the collaboration with Reiner and his CSO produced one of the very finest recordings of this masterpiece that we've ever had. Everything flows organically, with the Romantic inflections perfectly integrated into the structure. Leinsdorf and the BSO are hardly less impressive, and the chance to hear the infrequently programmed McDowell (perhaps a nod to Cliburn's American roots by programming our greatest Romantic composer) played by a pianist of Cliburn's stature is a rare treat indeed. Too bad these aren't on iTunes, but the CDs are easily found, especially Brahms 2/McDowell.
My Favorite Brahms: Rhapsodies, Op. 79 Nos. 1-2; Waltz, Op. 39 No. 15; Fantasies, Op. 116 Nos. 3, 6; Intermezzi, Op. 117 Nos. 1-3; Pieces, Op. 118 Nos. 1-3 & 6; Pieces, Op. 119 Nos. 1-4
(RCA Living Stereo, 1970-75)

Cliburn concentrates on the later, autumnal Brahms, and it's a perfect fit again (of the twenty works in the great Opp. 116-119, he plays 13, including all of 117 and 119). The warmth and beauty here are irresistible.

Recorded soon after Cliburn's Tchaikovsky Competition win, this was the first classical album to sell a million copies, and it has never gone out of print since its heralded release. Cliburn delivers a passionate, Romantically emotive rendition without going overboard into garish display, but you can still easily observe how fine his technique was in his youth. Still one of the very best recordings of this work. (His actual performance from the competition was eventually released as well, on the Testament label, and is well worth hearing, though the orchestra there is not top-tier.)

Not perfect (there are some slight smudges of the sort one gets outside the studio), but a top-notch interpretation, and also a groundbreaking one as before this, pianists mostly played the composer's second, and easier, cadenza but Cliburn started the trend of preferring the weightier first cadenza. He gives it a lighter feeling than most of his successors, though, which is part of why this remains one of the better Rach Threes.

The Sonata comes from a 1960 concert; the rest from studio sessions 15 years later. The combination of rigor and beauty, so unlike the more effusive Rachmaninoff of some other pianists, looks back to the composer's own style, but with even more beauty of tone (or, at least, the sonic benefit of more advanced recording techniques). - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.