Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Van Cliburn plus 50

Can it really be 50 years since American -- Texan -- pianist Van Cliburn won the Tchiakovsky International piano competition in Moscow? It happened in April 1958, and heaven help me I remember it fairly well. The Van Cliburn Foundation recently held a dinner to commemorate the anniversary.

We got the details from Life magazine back then, and it seemed to many of us like a triumph of American talent over communist regimentation and strict training. It was also, however, part of one of the first communist "thaws" following Khrushchev's speech exposing and deploring Stalin's crimes (some of which he had committed). So it was both Cold War competition and the possibility of some easing of tension, which happened periodically.

Anyway, shortly thereafter, already being a confirmed classical music fanatic, I bought the version of the first Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto done by Van Cliburn with Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin. It's still my favorite version of the piece, sensitive and delicate where appropriate yet with great power in the forte passages.

I suspect Cliburn never quite reached his full potential as an artist, though he made a marvelous recording of the Rachmaninov Third as well as the Tchaikovsky First. I suspect it was partly because in the dozen or so years when he was as celebrated as a rock star, every orchestra with which he played wanted the Tchaikovsky or the Rachmaninov, and he never quite established his ability in other parts of the repertoire. But he did establish the Van Cliburn Foundation, which holds its own piano competition and has nurtured several very fine pianists into international careers. Van Cliburn is 72 now (still looking almost boyish), and looks to have had a life well-lived.

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