I wanted to publish something the day that I heard the news, but I decided to wait. I am sure you've heard lots of people talking about Van Cliburn the american hero from a forgotten time (the events that gave cause for his lionization occurred nearly sixty years ago), or Van Cliburn the frustrated tragedy–a good-natured young man who fell prey to his own popularity–but I want to speak about one thing. I just want to take a moment to say what Van Cliburn meant to me.
Foremost, I love the way he played. There are a few performers who really impressed me and whose playing I admire: Rachmaninoff, Richter, Lupu, Shai Wosner (a young Israeli fellow who made a terrific impression on me when I was in school) but Cliburn stands out to me because–now let me say this in the best way I can–for lack of a better term, he turned everything he played into a love song. That's the way I first described his playing when I heard it at the age of sixteen, and that's the best way I can describe it now. If you've heard him in, say, Liszt's third Liebesträume, or in Rachmaninoff's third concerto, any Brahms and any Chopin Nocturne, you know what I mean. It struck me that the music of these disparate composers could all sound so beautiful when played by this one man. To me, every note he would play sounded like it was a warm, golden droplet fallen from the air around us and blossoming after gracing the earth like a gentle footfall.
Beyond just being in love with his sound, no aspiring concert pianist could remain unmoved after hearing about his controversial competition win in 1958 and coming back to the states to the greeting of a ticker tape parade. Granted, I don't think any of us pianists are delusional enough to think that they are likely to win such acclaim from a music competition again, but for better or for worse, the idea of competition winner-as-hero started with Van Cliburn, and has stayed with us ever since.
And you know, I think that's it. He was one of the few musicians that I always wanted to meet. Beyond his playing, he always gave the impression that he'd be a good person to get to know. And that's what makes me saddest. I'll never get to meet him.
(Well, maybe never.)
If you're curious about Van Cliburn here are a few places to begin:
- Brahms: Opus 117/3, 118/6 (My Favorite Brahms)
- Liszt: Un Sospiro, Liebesträume 3, Hungarian Rhapsody 12 (his signature piece, that and…)
- Schumann-Liszt: Widmung (Dedication or Love Song)
- If you can get your hands on recordings of him playing Russian concertos with Kiril Kondrashin, get them. They really are spectacular.
- Brahms Second Concerto for piano and orchestra
- Chopin nocturnes Opus 62
- This isn't one of my all-time favorites because I've heard the piece too many times, but a friend suggested it to me, and it's excellent; if you can find him playing Rachmaninoff's second piano sonata, I'd give that a listen.