Трудно высказать и не высказать
Все, что на сердце у меня.

It is hard to express, and hard to hold back,
Everything that is in my heart.

—Mikhail Matusovsky, “Подмосковные вечера” (“Moscow Nights”)

The last time I heard Van Cliburn live was in 1998, at Tanglewood, when he played Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the last-minute scramble for student seats in the Shed, I had ended up sitting next to a British conductor. The performance itself was mannered and decadent—the melodic line brought aggressively to the fore, the tempo wayward and undulating, even meandering. Cliburn got a standing ovation, which slightly puzzled my conductor friend. “But it wasn’t very good,” he said. “Yeah,” I said, “but he’s Van Cliburn.” We both agreed that it was more than enough explanation.

The audience was, of course, applauding the reputation as much as the man. This is not to say that Cliburn, who passed away today, was some sort of fraud. At his best, Cliburn could take his place among the greats. And even that Tanglewood performance, for all its interpretive oddness, still had plenty to marvel at: the athletically glamorous sound, the rubato, the accented chords landing with the impact of a blacksmith’s hammer. But the reputation inevitably preceded him, the machinery of celebrity so familiar that it obscured just how singular that reputation really was. Because Cliburn’s fame, his image—the fair-haired conqueror, the national hero, the eternal prodigy—was actually quite strange. That he eventually could wear it with a kind of grace was not the least of his achievements.

Cliburn’s reputation was made, of course, at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, but the reputation was built on something more than pianistic skill. The Russian public’s reaction to Cliburn, after all, was not one of impressed acknowledgement, or hard-won respect; it was love at first sight. What was often missed in the translation of that reputation back into American terms was the fact that it was a product of Cliburn’s nonconformity, his disinclination to stay within the bounds of musical propriety. I initially thought it an odd-couple pairing that both Glenn Gould and Van Cliburn made such sensations in the Cold-War-era Soviet Union, but the more I listened, the less odd it seemed. Gould’s playing tended toward the hermetic, Cliburn’s toward the hedonistic, but both of them also had a tendency toward the outré and the theatrical that seemed to connect with Russian audiences. Witness Cliburn, in concert in Moscow, performing Rachmaninoff’s E-flat major Prelude, op. 23, no. 6:

One couldn’t ask for a better example of a performer more in thrall to the musical flow, more eager to be buffeted by the music’s implicated emotion, even sentimentality. The amount of rhythmic liberty Cliburn takes in that clip, the instances of subito-this-or-that, not to mention Cliburn’s physical demeanor, verges on kitsch, but it never quite tips over, and the result is ravishing. Cliburn’s playing possessed a special kind of fearlessness—risking vulgarity in the pursuit of an aura of heightened emotional earnestness.

It was in contrast with his persona, shy and reserved, but Cliburn was always more at home at the piano (if not necessarily in front of an audience) anyway. One of my most indelible memories of him is seeing television footage from his performance at the White House in 1987, at the time his first public appearance in years. He played one of his favorite encores—the Russian pop song “Moscow Nights”—while singing along with Mikhail Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet delegation. While the Americans in the audience (I remember Nancy Reagan, in particular, who was sitting next to Gorbachev) looked pleased but slightly baffled, Cliburn was absolutely in his element. For all the celebrity, all the concert-opening performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Cliburn nevertheless seemed a little bit at odds with the American culture that lauded him; but, behind the keyboard, that quality was transformed into generosity and daring. Sometimes it came out mannered, but other times, it had an anchorite’s ecstatic eloquence. That original Tchaikovsky concerto with Kondrashin, the Rachmaninoff concerti he recorded with Reiner, his terrific version of Rachmaninoff’s second Sonata—Cliburn’s best moments will remain both touchstones and, paradoxically, forever his own.

One comment

  1. My upbringing was very atypical, but I remember at least some Americans were equally rapturous when first Emil Gilels and then David Oistrakh toured the US. It's hard to convey how opaque the Soviet Union seemed during the hard-frozen Cold War years between (roughly) 1947 and 1955 or 56.) “Cultural exchange” was one of the first signs of thaw, which meant decreasing fear of hot war for both Soviet and American publics.

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