One of my musical heroes, pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013), has passed away. He soared to first-place at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, right at the height of the Cold War. Back home, he returned to a ticker-tape parade; TIME magazine even put him on their front cover and called him the “Texan who conquered Russia.” His recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” went platinum — the first million-selling classical album in chart history.
Of all the obituaries I’ve read, I think The New York Times and NPR have the best. Over at the “Get Religion” blog, Terry Mattingly has a good piece on Van Cliburn’s Baptist background that has received only passing attention (if that!) in most news coverage.
I have to agree with NPR Classical’s Ted Libbey, who said Cliburn’s performance made him “one of the great interpreters of” Piano Concerto No. 1.
“The account is played from the heart, with a spellbinding virtuosity that seems almost effortless — a reminder that the concerto is genuine music, after all, not some merely flashy showpiece of fast octaves. Cliburn’s playing has so much poise, and in the lyrical moments he brings such shape and expressiveness to the phrasing of the music. Also, the beautiful voicing of chords in the opening passage is achieved with such naturalness, and with a complete lack of bombast; it’s no mere technical exercise for him, this is music that really means something.”
Below is one of my favorite moments in the performance.