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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 ?



Posted: Mar 04 2013, 11:18 PM by the horn | with no comments
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