Pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013 ) An Appreciation .
Van Cliburn , who died last week at the age of 78 , was a penomenon of classical music ; the only classical musician who has ever had a New York ticker tape parade in his honor . He was the most famous concert pianist ever produced by America . Not the greatest , which is not to disparage him . No one can ever be the "greatest" of anything in classical music . There have been plenty of great American pianists such as the tragically short lived William Kapell , (1922-1953), who was killed in a plane crash , Leon Fleisher,who is still very much alive and active in his 80s , Peter Serkin ,son of the great pianist Rudold Serkin , John Browning , Ruth Laredo , to name only several .
But no other pianist has ever captured the imagination of the American public . In 1958 , at the height of the Cold War , the lanky young Texan pianist , who had studied at Juilliard , won Moscow's prestigious Tchaikovsky competition and was instantly catapaulted into classical superstardom . Renowned Rissian pianists such as the late Sviatoslav Richter and others were bowled over by his enormous talent and winning personality . The panel of distinguished Russian and teachers pianists and the Russian audiences were were stunned by his playing .
Cliburn seemed to have caused a one man thaw in the tense relations between the Soviet Union and America . He came home to America a national hero ,and his career was instantly launched . He began to record for the prestigious R.C.A. record label for which all his commercial recordings were made , and appeared with renowned conductors such as Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy and others with America's top orchestras . He specialized in the romantic piano repertoire of Chopin, Tchaikovsky,Rachmaninov, and Brahms, and these early recordings have been classics and best sellers for a half century .
His technique was prodigious and his sound was rich and plush ,never hard and metallic . His future seemed assured . His interpretations were warm and spontaneus ; he had the world at his feet . But unfortunately, after a number of euphoric years at the top of the classical music world, something went very wrong. Puzzlingly wrong . Cliburn seemed to have burned out . His playing has declined badly. Not in technique, but something was missing . The spark and bloom of youth was gone .
In 1978 , Cliburn decided to retire from public performing . What happened ? He remained very much involved with classical music and founded the now famous and prestigious Fort Worth piano competition in the Texas city where he lived . He had been born in Shreveport ,Louisiana but settled in Texas with his parents as a child and became a confirmed Texan . He never married and was known to be gay by his friends and associates ,but this did not become common knowledge until relatively late in his life . He had many friends in and out of the field and was out of the limelight but by nomeans reclusive .
The most plausible explanation for his burnout has been ascribed to his small repertoire and his lack of inclination to expand his repertoire regularly, something which many other great pianists have done . This may have led to the relative lack of luster of his later performances . Many other great pianists have performed everything from Bach ,Mozart, Beethoven , Chopin and Rachmaninov to works by living composers as well as exploring the less familiar corners of the piano repertoire .
In this respect he resembled the legendary German/Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber, (1930-2004) who had a similarly small repertoire of orchestral works and operas and rarely appeared in public unless he found the conditions for performing ideal . But Kleiber did not seemto burn out and remained somewhat active much longer .
So Cliburn's illustrious but truncated career appears to have been both a triumph and a tragedy . Who knows what he could have accomplished if he had not been the victim of burnout ?