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Van Cliburn's talent was uniquely suited for a moment in history

Posted 2:32pm on Monday, Jun. 23, 2014

Editor's note: Longtime classical music critic Olin Chism reviewed Van Cliburn's performances every time he played in Fort Worth or Dallas, and he has attended or covered all but one of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competitions since the first one in 1962.

There will never be another musician like Van Cliburn. A striking confluence of talent, training, personality and international politics produced a unique phenomenon. It seems unlikely in the extreme that these ingredients will ever be mixed again in the same way.

International politics certainly played a major role. It's hard for anyone born after the mid-1940s to grasp how tense relations were between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. There was fear and suspicion on both sides, the threat of atomic war seemed real, and the Soviet Union seemed a towering monster to many.

Into this stew stepped a 6-foot-4 Texan with huge hands and an outgoing personality who showed no animosity toward anyone. He was greeted with curiosity when he arrived in Moscow for the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, but when he played his first notes, the curiosity turned to wonder.

For Cliburn seemed to have a Russian musical soul. He played Russian music on Russian soil in a way that many Russians thought was theirs alone. Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Taneyev, Prokofiev and Kabalevsky were the composers.

"I can only say that his playing sounded the most Russian of everyone," Russian pianist Lev Vlasenko told Cliburn's biographer, Howard Reich. "I mean, he was more Russian than we were."

By the finals, it was clear that Cliburn was the best. The great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who was on the jury, reportedly gave Cliburn a score of 25 (the scale was 1 to 25) and everybody else zero. The Soviet-dominated jury was nervous about awarding first place to an American, so the decision went to the top. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev OK'd Cliburn's victory.

The international hurricane of publicity that ensued certainly made Cliburn known over much of the world. At the same time there arose a myth that Cliburn had come out of nowhere, with his talent finally recognized only by the Soviets. Actually, Cliburn had already won a number of American competitions, including the prestigious Leventritt, already had significant concert experience, and had engagements with the New York Philharmonic -- something that unknowns just don't get.

Still, there's a difference between being known in the upper circles of American music and being known by everybody. Cliburn began a punishing schedule of recitals, concerts and recordings that lasted for 16 years.

Eventually there were complaints that his repertoire was limited -- probably due in part to the fact that presenters wanted the big, crowd-pleasing showpieces, such as Tchaikovsky's first concerto and Rachmaninoff's third, that he had played in Moscow. It's true that his repertoire was more limited than some pianists', but probably no more so than that of a celebrated virtuoso such as Vladimir Horowitz. A glance at his discography and recital programs turns up more composers than you might expect. Names like Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, Szymanowski, Albeniz, Granados, Grieg, Brahms and lots of Beethoven.

There were also complaints, even by Cliburn's admirers, that some of the spark had gone out of his playing. This could easily be because of 16 years of constant concertizing. In 1974, he decided to get off the treadmill, taking no new engagements but continuing to fulfill old commitments. By the end of 1978, he had honored them all, so he disappeared from the concert stage.

This was by no means a unique move. Horowitz dropped out for 12 years, beginning in 1953, although he continued to record. John Browning, who was considered a rival of Cliburn during their Juilliard days, dropped out for a couple of decades. And then there's Glenn Gould, who dropped out of live performances entirely, though he continued to record.

Incidentally, an interviewer once asked Gould if there were any pianists of his generation that he particularly admired. He answered with two names: Leon Fleisher (no surprise there) and Van Cliburn (huge surprise; it's hard to imagine two pianists more unlike in style and musical preferences than Gould and Cliburn).

Why did Cliburn drop out? He told a reporter for Vogue that he "had never taken the time to have a life. I was tired of living out of a suitcase, flying nearly every day, never having a real home.... I was ready to be bored for awhile, to have a regular life." He was expressing much the same sentiments that Browning had expressed.

Beginning in the 1980s, Cliburn had a home in his beloved Fort Worth. Although he shunned the concert stage, he was by no means a recluse. He could be seen at musical events, especially the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (though he carefully refrained from dominating the event). He was generous in his support of his church and artistic causes.

President Ronald Reagan lured him out of retirement in 1987 with an invitation to play at the White House during a state visit by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Many had been wishing for his return to the stage, and the success of the White House program must have played a role in his decision to begin playing in public again.

But he kept the pace sane, never returning to the kind of hectic schedule of the early days.

There was no need to. He had made his mark and lived his life the way he wanted to.

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