Van Cliburn: an American guy having a Russian soul


On July 12th, 2013, the pianist Van Cliburn would turn 79.

In 1958, he won the 1st International Tchaikovsky Competition. My entering into music was taking place in the wake of this event. I hardly had any idea of what exactly was going on by virtue of my early age. Still, I could get the feeling of the rapturous atmosphere that reigned in Moscow at the time in this connection, as well as a kind of cult formed around this young man, whose name, due to the insufficient popularity of the English language in Russia, was pronounced here in a Latin manner, like “Vahn Cleebern.” Later, there was time, when I thought that all that ballyhoo had been incited by the then ruler of Russia N. S. Khruschev, who wanted to capitalize on the event to improve relations with America. But, having achieved the age of reason, I came to understand that Clibern reaped his laurels quite deservedly.

Cliburn’s performance at the competition of the Rach 3 was especially noted. I have heard the recording and made sure that it is really one of the best renditions of this masterpiece (I am not sure, however, that the recording was done precisely at the competition). That was amazing: how could some lad from Texas could comprehend and express the enigmatic Russian soul? I started exploring this issue. It turned out that Rachmaninoff was the favourite composer of not only Van, but also of his mother, who was herself an excellent pianist and his first music teacher. Moreover, both had met Rachmaninoff in person, and the little Van would listen to Rachmaninoff records, as well as his live performances on the radio. After his mother, Van’s piano education was taken up by Rosina Lhévinne, the widow of the famous pianist Josef Lhévinne, who had graduated from the Moscow Conservatoire with a gold medal the same year as Rachmaninoff and Scriabin (both R. Lhévinne and his husband-to-be had been pupils of V. I. Safonov, who had been the head of both the Moscow Conservatoire and the National Conservatory of Music of America).

Awarding him the 1st prize was not smooth, either. The “cold war” was going on, and our officials would not acknowledge achievements in whatsoever on the part of our ideological and geopolitical opponent. There was relentless fault-finding with regard to Cliburn. For example, some did not like it that he “frivolously” shook his head while playing. To which A. B. Goldenveizer (Safonov’s pupil, too) gently replied: “He just talks to God; should we judge him for that?” After Cliburn’s performance of the Rach 3, E. G. Gilels run up onto the platform and kissed the contestant, while S. T. Richter gave him a mark of “25.” But it was not until the “go-ahead” from Khruschev was received that Cliburn was declared winner. After the competition was over, Cliburn stayed in Moscow for some time, and he behaved modestly and decently. In particular, he never turned down any requests from our record companies: he worked in studios days and nights, without demanding any rest or money.

Subsequently, Cliburn has been to Russia on tour a couple of times. There have always been rumours that he has got cancer, and there has been little time remaining for him to live. However, whether those rumours were exaggerated, or medical care for him has been OK, he, ultimately, lived 78 years. He last visited Moscow in 2011 as the honorary chairman of the jury at the 14th Tchaikovsky competition.

Van Cliburn died on February 27th, 2013.


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