published 03/03/2013 at 17:33 GMT by Jeremy Stepmann
American pianist who was hailed as a hero after scooping a major Russian prize in 1958 at the height of the cold war.
The American pianist Van Cliburn, who has died aged 78 after suffering from cancer, was a hard man to miss. By the age of 17, he was 6ft 4in tall, yet radiated a kind of innocence, a childlike quality, that became only more striking as the years passed. And when he reached 23, he featured in headlines round the world after winning the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow.
An American victory had never been envisaged at this would-be showcase for Russian pianistic supremacy, whose jury included both Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. However, instead of a humiliation, Cliburn's victory in 1958 was a cause for celebration. The Russians adored him, mobbed him, showered him with flowers. His victory was supported by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev himself.
It came at the height of the cold war, after the US had been stung by the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik 1, the first orbiting satellite, and so proved a sensation. The homecoming of the willowy, teetotal, churchgoing patriot was marked by a tickertape parade in New York, with 100,000 people filling the streets and cheering. He was no longer primarily a pianist but a symbol, a national focus of pride and hope.
Cliburn played for every US president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama – most notably for Ronald Reagan when his guest was Mikhail Gorbachev. So that the significance of what had happened in Moscow should not be forgotten, he habitually began subsequent recitals with The Star-Spangled Banner.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Van started playing at the age of three. He was taught by his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, an accomplished pianist whose own teacher, Arthur Friedheim, had been a pupil of Liszt. His father, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Sr, was an oil company executive. Van began giving recitals at four, and two years later the family moved to Kilgore, Texas. When Van was 12, he made his orchestral debut, in Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
By 1951, when he entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York to study with the Russian-born Rosina Lhévinne, he was already a seasoned concert veteran. In 1954 he won the prestigious Leventritt award, for which the jury included Rudolf Serkin, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein, and embarked on a series of debuts with major orchestras. He was doing well, but not significantly better than his most highly regarded colleagues.
Van Cliburn Van Cliburn was adored by the Russians. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives
In Moscow, he changed that with his performances of the Tchaikovsky First and Rachmaninov Third concertos. Once back in the US, he made a million-selling recording of the Tchaikovsky, but critical misgivings soon began to be voiced. Though few disputed his stature in Russian repertoire – and he returned to the Soviet Union a number of times after his initial triumph – increasing numbers found him wanting when he strayed elsewhere, into Mozart, or even the American Edward MacDowell. His mutual love affair with his public never wavered, but in 1978 he announced a sabbatical from concert life. It stretched to a decade. He returned to performance in 1989, but only sporadically, and many critics detected the embers of a diminished and unfulfilled talent.
When I first met him, at Serkin's summer-school-cum-festival in Marlboro, Vermont, he was 22, I an awestruck 14. Even then, I perceived in his face a surprising shyness. When we met again, in 1991, Cliburn was rehearsing for the opening concert of Carnegie Hall's centenary celebrations. As I approached the building, I was struck by a gleaming, white stretch limo. Cliburn, who had lived for a time with his mother in 15 rooms of an expensive Manhattan hotel, was for many years among the highest-paid classical soloists. His manner in the ensuing interview was graciousness itself.
As striking as his youthful look and reserved formality was the unmistakable sincerity of the thoughts and feelings behind them. This helps account for his quite phenomenal effect on audiences. Words and analysis did not seem to be his natural medium: rather, he combined a phenomenal musical instinct and formidable emotional control – precluding, in his earlier playing, sentimentality or bombast – with physical gifts of a very rare order.
His large hands could embrace all technical challenges with apparent ease, though he was a famously hard practiser, often working late into the night; his height and body weight enabled him to maintain a power, stamina and control that were the envy of many colleagues; and the acuity of his musical ear repeatedly discovered a rich tonal palette. Whatever the views of critics, his playing had an underlying simplicity and directness of utterance that listeners found compelling.
In 1962, his supporters in Fort Worth, Texas, launched the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; the 14th in the series starts in May. His mother died in 1994, and he is survived by his partner, Thomas L Smith.
Van (Harvey Lavan) Cliburn, pianist, born 12 July 1934; died 27 February 2013
published 03/03/2013 at 17:33 GMT by Jeremy Stepmann