Harvey Levan Cliburn…Van Cliburn to you…died last week (July 12, 1934-February 27, 2013). He achieved honors mostly given to sports heroes and rock stars…a ticker tape parade and a platinum album. He played the chords of fame —mostly Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1, and similar war-horses from Grieg and Rachmaninoff — and suffering from backlash and burnout, retreated into obscurity to pursue happiness and let the old-timers (Horowitz & Rubinestein) and newcomers (Brendel & Pollini) have the spotlight.
Any denizen of the dollar bin has seen Van Cliburn's first album for RCA. It was a million seller. a first for classical piano. Americans who never owned a classical album rushed to get it because the newspapers were full of Van Cliburn's story…how the 23 year-old kid invaded Russia and brought back a prize. It was as if he spat on their Sputnik, as the powerful Red Machine had taken the lead in the Space Race, batting a satellite into orbit. Van Cliburn brought them Ruskies back to Earth and gave America something to cheer about.
The thunderous ovations for the Texan (born in Louisiana) made it impossible for the Russians to rig the voting. The famous anecdote has the judges going to Nikita "We will BURY YOU" Kruschchev muttering that it would be impossible to deny Van Cliburn. "Is he the best?" Kruschchev allegedly asked. "Then give him the prize." Van Cliburn returned home to a ticker tape parade in New York City and a contract from RCA.
With his wavy hair and pleasant looks, the young man eased past Liberace as the dreamboat of ladies sans gadar, and his comfy set list of familiar concertos made him popular among anyone interested in experimenting with classical music. He turned out to be, along with Glenn Gould, one of the last superstar pianists, the kind of artist you'd ask for over the name of the composer. "Mr. Record Store Man, I'd like VAN CLIBURN's version of Debussy…")
Critics were quick to resent Van Cliburn's super stardom, especially since he played safe with showy romantic pieces. The high pressure of classical music, where most any mistake is magnified and any interpretation fuel for debate and complaint, is not for everyone. Victor Borge's nerves led him to jokes…and a new career in comedy over a promising but demanding start as a straight pianist. For Van Cliburn, some performances were erratic, while others were unjustly criticized. While the general public roared approval, and his tours and his albums made money, he was relieved when he could tell his mother (also his manager) that enough was enough. In 1978, only 43, he disappeared. He filled 15 rooms in Manhattan with antiques and enjoyed the night life of the city.
His sexuality was hardly an issue during the height of his fame. Celebrities were not being "outed" at that time, either because of pay-offs or an old-fashioned sense of propriety. Unless a star was being outrageous, the tabloids weren't likely to bother. The outre Liberace flounced about in effeminate sequined outfits but the tabloids even left him alone after he won a lawsuit against a magazine that couldn't back up their innuendo.It had to be tough for him, a pious Baptist, non-smoker and teetotlaler, to hold onto his secret, and to not speak out at a time when homosexuality was routinely described as an abomination in the eyes of The Lord. Ultimately, the public heard all about it in 1996, when sour ex-lover Thomas Zaremba, on the losing end of what had been a 17 year relationship, chose to file a Rock Hudson-type palimony suit. Zaremba lost, and with so many gays coming out of the closet, or being outed by radical gay activists, the news was a big yawn. Van Cliburn continued on, occasionally scheduling a few concerts just to keep up a certain level of fame. As for recording, no, the stores kept re-issuing his material from the late 50's and early 60's. Record labels simply didn't see any viability for him in an age when only die-hard connoisseurs were buying classical music and/or studying the differences between an artist's earlier and later interpretations of the same concerto. Van Cliburn sold mostly to those on a budget, and to less-than-serious listeners who simply wanted one album of "greatest hits," and could get it with"My Favorite Brahms," "My Favorite Debussy," "My Favorite Lizst," and "My Favorite Chopin."
A 1993 biography of him by Howard Reich had reminded readers, " “It’s important to remember that…were it not for the sweep and innate lyricism of his playing, as well as its technical brilliance, he wouldn’t have conquered the very demanding Russian public, and the rest wouldn’t have happened.”
Reminding people of what Van Cliburn once was, was easier than explaining his current limbo as basically a celebrity pianist. In 1997 he toured with the Moscow Philharmonic, but the stress was too much. He felt dizzy, and revised his program to scuttled his famous interpretation of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in favor of some easy solo pieces. Some critics were happy to have him back, but others were disappointed and complained about erratic performances and the tedium of hearing old classics. As the old pianists died off and the newer ones failed to become superstars, Van Cliburn found himself the recipient of such prizes as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, and the following year, the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. He remained a popular celebrity at galas and parties, and presided over his own charities that recognized emerging young classical artists. Last year, the music world learned of his struggle with bone cancer, and while still standing ramrod tall at public appearances, he looked thin and frail, despite retaining that full head of (now white) hair.
I have about 500 classical CDs in my collection, and at this point, still cling to about 100 classical albums on vinyl. I have to admit that I don't have many examples of Mr. Cliburn among them. I had the Grieg/Lizst album he did with Eugene Ormandy, but traded it away years ago. Oddly enough,I never grabbed that million-seller "Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1/Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2" RCA album even when it was a buck. I do have a CD featuring his Rachmaninoff #3 (or Rachmaninov, as RCA preferred to spell it), and that's what you'll find below. It's the final movement (15 minutes), recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall, May 19, 1958. At the podium is Russia's foremost conductor of that era, Kiril Kondrashin (March 6, 1914-March 7, 1981). I would've upped the entire concerto but that's over 35 minutes, and a lotta bandwidth. The snappy "finale" should do. Sviatoslav Richter and Guiomar Novaes were 82 when they died, Vladimir Horowitz was 85, Claudio Arrau was 88, and Arthur Rubinstein and Wilhelm Kempff were both 95. Cliburn was 78, but that's actually a long time to keep any Van running.