If cultural gods tell us more about us than about themselves, Van Cliburn holds a particularly warped and smoky mirror up to the classical-music world he intermittently dominated over the last half-century - one that shows much about the strange price of being a folk hero.
Cliburn has, in the words of classical piano maven David Dubal, “written one of the most spectacular pages in the history of his instrument.” Yet the 50th anniversary of his 1958 Cold War victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow has been marked by stabs at nostalgia in the media and a strange silence from his recording company, RCA.
No new releases or anthologies have been forthcoming, though that might be the work of Cliburn himself, who historically has been slow about approving rereleases of his recordings. Video Artist International was all set to release Van Cliburn in Moscow, a remarkable series of Soviet-era TV videos, in April - the anniversary month of the competition - only to be held up by Cliburn until now.
He was said to be “off traveling,” which is hard to fathom considering that some of these video performances, never before seen in the West, can only boost his faltering reputation and prompt renewed appreciation.
One clue to his apparent disengagement may lie in the charming inertia he discussed in a 1998 interview with the late music critic John Ardoin: “My friends say it’s difficult to get me to go anywhere, and once I’m there, it is impossible to get me to leave. They’re right, of course.”
Cliburn’s evergreen fame has had to be more than he bargained for, if only because it was unprecedented: No pianist before or since has had a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Such fortunes alighted upon what initially seemed to be an all-American boy, born in Louisiana and raised in Texas, who, as time went on, came to look more like a gifted, Deep South eccentric from an early Truman Capote short story. He admits to being the kind of guy who, left to his own devices, never takes down his Christmas decorations.
What was meant to be a year’s sabbatical in 1978 after two decades at the top became a 9-year-long withdrawal, during which Cliburn adopted a nocturnal lifestyle and a taste for antiques, filling 15 rooms at the New York hotel where he lived - until he moved back to Texas (where he has 15 pianos).
In post-sabbatical concerts (the first public one being with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1989), Cliburn has indulged in quaint practices like reciting poetry, and feels himself on such intimate terms with the national anthem (which he plays solo at the piano) that he calls it “The Banner” for short.
Though he continues to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (one of his signature works) in ways that touch enough of the old bases, the tougher Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, his other signature piece, has been more troublesome: At the opening concert of a 1994 cross-country tour, he complained of dizzy spells at intermission and, rather than risking Rachmaninoff, played solo encores, as he did for the rest of the tour.
Audiences displayed unquestioning acceptance. Like a handful of musicians who have something close to unconditional fame (Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma), Cliburn has, if nothing else, given the world a template for The Classical Music Event - for which audiences aren’t necessarily classical. Presentation is as important as substance.
Nobody makes entrances like Van Cliburn. He moves through the orchestra like a ship plowing the waves, his almost militaristic posture perfect for tie and tails. Both young (he was 23 in April 1958) and not-so-young (he just turned a youthful 74), he’s handsome and magnetic, and has a poet’s way of peering at the heavens while playing. And such presentation, plus his brand-name status, commands more than usual attention from Cliburn’s classical-music fringe audiences. So do gala-priced tickets.
Still, one reports with relief that this nonmusical overlay isn’t present, or needed to understand Cliburn’s appeal, on the VAI videos. There’s no “Banner” or poetry; in Russia, he was more a musician than an objectified folk hero and, interestingly, seems more in his element. Though Beethoven concertos often show Cliburn on less-than-interesting good behavior, the 1962 live video of him performing the Piano Concerto No. 5 (VAI’s Volume I) is mesmerizing. How could the performance be anything else with conductor Kirill Kondrashin making Beethoven a matter of life and death?
Cliburn sustains a level of tension with a power in reserve that allows the piano to explode just when you think the pianist has given all he can. He hits his share of wrong notes, but with the eloquence that comes of reaching for something beyond your usual self.
Those who have despaired at ever hearing a fresh, passionate Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 will find one on this video, not just because of the Cliburn/Kondrashin factor. Speaking in Russian to an audience that included Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, Cliburn dedicates the performance to the beloved and recently deceased pianist Alexander Goldenweiser. It is full of things you don’t normally hear from Cliburn, like rage. And here, flash becomes substance: Cliburn’s wide-screen, high-def command of the keyboard throws open a huge door to Tchaikovsky’s intense inner world - to devastating effect.
Shift to a decade later, 1972 (VAI’s Vol. II): Kondrashin is visibly older, Cliburn is not, though bad habits are emerging, such as vulgar, weighty treatment of the bass notes in the Grieg Piano Concerto that may have been a smoke screen for lack of emotional conviction. In Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Cliburn’s tone isn’t as rich as usual; he bangs a bit and seems expressively constricted. The audience appears to know: Though all manner of flowers are brought out, applause is tepid.
Some of my favorite parts of Cliburn performances are confiding moments with lovely pianissimo. But here, and in some of his later recordings, emotional restraint is so present that he seems to be making a definite artistic choice (as opposed to not having much to give). Life at the top sometimes demands the unconscious formulation of boundaries with one’s audience - perhaps emotionally guarded performance is one of them. And it’s here that Cliburn doesn’t fit easily into the big picture of 20th century pianism: With his big-piano sound that demanded large musical canvases, he had the outward manner of a romantic. Yet the inner life of his interpretations was increasingly that of a classicist.
Classicist or not, Cliburn stuck pretty much with the same repertoire and didn’t broaden his life with chamber music, which meant he simultaneously risked boredom and had to compete with his 23-year-old self. Why he’d submit himself to such a conundrum, especially after his long layoff, is suggested by a 1994 interview: He told me that he firmly believes that once something is classic, well, it’s classic. You’ve hit the mother lode and don’t stray from it. Problem is, the passage of time makes such stasis impossible.
To an event-oriented audience wanting him to relive history with the music that made him famous, Cliburn becomes a folk hero with a built-in self-destruct device. He couldn’t artistically survive his own life. So can you blame him for not making a bigger deal out of the 50th anniversary of his overnight fame? I can’t.