In Memoriam: Van Cliburn (1934 – 2013)

Van CliburnPianist Van Cliburn, who was born on July 12, 1934 and who was catapulted to international stardom by his victory at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, died yesterday at the age of 78 at his home in Fort Worth, Texas.

Upon his return from his landmark victory in Moscow, Cliburn was given a hero’s welcome and a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York City, after which he addressed the crowd as follows: “I appreciate more than you will ever know that you are honoring me, but the thing that thrills me the most is that you are honoring classical music.  Because I’m only one of many.  I’m only a witness and a messenger.  Because I believe so much in the beauty, the construction, the architecture invisible, the importance for all generations, for young people to come, that it will help their minds, develop their attitudes, and give them values.  That is why I’m so grateful that you have honored me in that spirit.”

Throughout his life, Cliburn remained true to that ideal.  Neither in his stage presence nor in his playing did he seek to draw attention to himself, but always to the music.  He was quiet and composed at the keyboard; there were never any histrionics or facial contortions.  More important, his interpretations were free from eccentricity; he viewed himself always as a servant of the composer.  In a 2008 PBS interview, he expressed his view of that responsibility very succinctly: “You want to be faithful to what they wrote; you want to be able to convey that to someone else.”

The tall, handsome, soft-spoken Texan with his all-encompassing command of the Romantic repertoire was an ideal ambassador for classical music, and it is impossible to overstate the impact he had here in the United States.  I described his influence on me in my post of September 17, 2009, but briefly, Cliburn was one of my first heroes of the piano.  I saw him in recital three times during the ‘60s, and among my many classical albums, I count no fewer than four of his.  Between his recitals and his records, he introduced me to many staples of the piano literature, including the 5th concerto by Beethoven, the 2nd of Rachmaninoff, the 3rd sonata by Chopin, the 6th by Prokofiev, and the sonata by Samuel Barber, all of which have become lasting favorites of mine.

The following article by Tim Madigan of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram captures not only the impact of Cliburn’s victory, but also something of the spirit of the man.

There are many examples of Cliburn’s artistry on YouTube, as well as a number of revealing interviews.  To honor his memory, I have chosen his performance of the magnificent sonata by Franz Liszt, one of the most daunting works in the piano repertoire.  This performance dates from a 1960 recital in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

It would be easy to end this tribute with a comment like, “He will be missed,” but for Cliburn’s vast legion of fans and admirers – of which I am one – there is no need to miss him at all.  His recorded legacy is simply enormous, and extends from Mozart to Barber.  For those of us who didn’t know him personally but loved his playing, he is with us still as much as ever.

Published in: on February 28, 2013 at 4:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Concert Review: Pianist Valentina Lisitsa Returns to George Fox University

Valentina Lisitsa

The internationally acclaimed Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa returned to George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon on Friday, September 30 to give her second recital at Bauman Auditorium this year.  She opened her program with five pieces by Rachmaninoff: the Etude Tableaux, Op. 39 No. 6 (“Little Red Riding Hood”) and four preludes.  In all of these pieces, Miss Lisitsa demonstrated an astonishing assurance and technical command, together with a gorgeous singing line and exceptional delicacy.  She has an unmistakable affinity for Rachmaninoff, and is the ideal interpreter of his music.

This was followed by Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, the justly famous “Appassionata”.  One of Beethoven’s best-known sonatas, the Appassionata is a work of sharply contrasting moods.  Full of Sturm und Drang, it also has its light-hearted and noble moments.  Throughout the shifting moods, Valentina put every musical idea into proper perspective, and overlooked nothing.  She succeeded beautifully in unifying the disparate elements of this work into a coherent and compelling whole.

Following the intermission, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, Miss Lisitsa played no fewer than 16 of the Polish master’s works: three waltzes, six etudes, and seven nocturnes.  The “Black Key” etude never sounded more effervescent, while Op. 10 No. 12 sounded more revolutionary than ever.  Her renditions of the “Winter Wind” etude and Op. 25 No. 12 were perhaps the best performances of those two pieces I’ve ever heard.

For me, however, the high point of Miss Lisitsa’s Chopin lay in the seven nocturnes.  The uniqueness of Chopin’s voice is nowhere more striking than in his nocturnes.  From one to the next, as well as within a given nocturne, they are full of changing moods.  Op. 27 No. 1 at one point sounded unmistakably like a polonaise, while Op. 9 No. 2 was distinctly waltz-like.  Miss Lisitsa’s performance of this nocturne so completely captivated the audience that, at its conclusion, no one wanted to break the spell of the music by applauding.  Miss Lisitsa let the final chord fade away into utter silence, but not until she was about to begin the Liszt rhapsody that followed did anyone dare to clap.

The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with which Miss Lisitsa concluded her program has been sending audiences home in a state of happy excitement for more than a century and a half, and it didn’t fail in its purpose this night.  Valentina certainly made that piano thunder!  My only hope is that the memory of the Liszt rhapsody didn’t make people forget the Chopin nocturnes.

If you love the piano, and have the chance to hear Valentina Lisitsa, you must not let the opportunity pass you by.  Everything she does has been carefully considered; there are no careless passages.  In everything she plays, she keeps in mind the big picture.  “Her keyboard technique is preposterously complete,” wrote a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle.  This is certainly true, but what is more important is that Valentina always searches out how to put her technique at the service of the music she plays.  It is this quality that makes her such an important and unforgettable artist.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Comments (5)  
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Liszt and Scriabin: Two Etudes for Piano Performed by Lola Astanova

It can be no secret to readers of this blog that Lola Astanova is one of my favorite contemporary pianists.  We have already seen her in performances of Rachmaninoff’s second sonata, three works by Chopin, and her own dazzling transcriptions of three popular songs, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her again.  She combines a virtuoso technique with an extraordinary feeling and passion for the music, and brings a welcome individuality to everything she plays.

As a subscriber to Lola’s YouTube channel, I’m notified whenever she uploads a new video.  Most recently, she added an impromptu recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F-minor.  For me, the unplanned nature of this video only adds to its impact.  It is as if Lola has invited us into her dressing room without her makeup on, and allowed us to see even more deeply into the heart and soul of an artist.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last October, I conducted an interview with Lola that covered subjects as diverse as her early musical training, her views on modern music, and the importance of the internet to musicians today.  The following exchange took place at the end of that interview.

DERRICK:  If I were to select a few pieces that I would most like to hear you play, I would choose Scriabin’s Etude Op. 42, No. 5, Prokofiev’s 6th and 8th sonatas, and the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Is there any hope for me?

LOLA:  Yes, let’s start with Scriabin’s Etude.  I haven’t played it in a long time so thanks for reminding me.

Imagine how excited I was last February to discover that Lola had indeed recorded the etude I mentioned.  What an inspired, glorious piece of music, full of a brooding, impassioned yearning sweetened with flights of unbounded joy.  It has been a favorite of mine for over 40 years, ever since I became familiar with Victor Merzhanov’s recording of it.

And how beautifully Lola plays it, how it sings under her fingers!  How fortunate we are that she shares her gift so unsparingly.  Now that she has recorded the Scriabin, do I dare hope that she will one day record the sonatas by Prokofiev and Barber?

Valentina Lisitsa: Four Encores

After thrilling to her brilliant performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, the audience in Seoul was in no mood to let Valentina Lisitsa leave the stage.  They called her back for no less than four encores, each of which reveals a different aspect of her artistry.  Her first encore was by Franz Liszt, who was himself an admirer of Grieg’s concerto.

“La Campanella”                        by Franz Liszt

“La Campanella” (“The Little Bell”) is the third of six “Grandes Etudes de Paganini” by Liszt, all of which are based on compositions by the great 19th-century Italian violinist and composer Nicolo Paganini, and all of which are notoriously hard to play.  This kind of knuckle-busting difficulty is Valentina Lisitsa’s bread and butter, but as we will see in a moment, she can also play with exquisite sweetness.

“Traumerei” by Robert Schumann

“Traumerei” means “Dreaming”, and this piece is as different as possible from the virtuoso showpieces that Valentina Lisitsa is known for.  She plays it beautifully, and it was this performance more than any other that convinced me of her artistry.

Vladimir Horowitz, for whom “Traumerei” was a signature piece, once related the following incident as a gentle reminder to anyone who might think that slow, lyrical music is easy to play.  A young virtuoso once came to the famous piano class of Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna, and upon being asked to play, stunned everyone with a phenomenal display of virtuosity.  The most difficult music seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingers.  He kept this up for quite some time without as much as a drop of perspiration on his brow.  When he had finished this astonishing performance, someone wistfully asked that he play a simple piece by Schumann, such as “Traumerei”.  Obligingly, the young virtuoso complied, and after four bars he was perspiring profusely!

Prelude in G minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff

The attentive reader may recall that this prelude was featured on this blog in September in a memorable performance by Emil Gilels.  It is unmistakably Russian in character, and very majestic.

“Fur Elise” by Ludwig van Beethoven

Valentina’s fourth and final encore was Beethoven’s well-known “Fur Elise”.  You will hear some surprised laughter as she begins to play, as the audience was undoubtedly expecting one of her trademark virtuoso encores, not a student recital piece.  What they got instead was a thoughtful, poignant rendering of this hackneyed Bagatelle, one that demonstrates just how beautiful it can be when played by a true artist.

You can learn more about Valentina at her website:, and will find many more examples of her playing at her YouTube channel:

Two Who Died Too Young – Part II: William Kapell

William Kapell died on October 29, 1953 when the DC-6 on which he was returning from a concert tour of Australia flew into King’s Mountain, just 16 miles south of San Francisco Airport.  On this – the 56th – anniversary of his death, I am pleased to honor his memory and share his artistry with readers of these pages.

kapellWilliam Kapell was born in New York City on September 20, 1922.  He began taking piano lessons at age 7, and his early teachers included Dorothea Anderson La Follette and Olga Samaroff, with whom he studied first in Philadelphia and later at Juilliard.  In 1941, he won both the Philadelphia Orchestra’s youth competition and the prestigious Naumburg Award, and at 20 he embarked on his concert career.

Initially, he was best known for his performances of the crowd-pleasing concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and especially Khachaturian.  As Virgil Thompson wrote after his death, “It was only in the last two years that he had gained real access to the grand repertory of the piano, to the concertos of Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin and to the suites of Bach and Debussy, and that he had been genuinely successful with that repertory.”

The deepening of his art in these last few years was recognized,” writes Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review Of Books.  “Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatagorsky became anxious to record with him.  When Jack Pfeiffer, the RCA producer, called him in California one afternoon to ask whether he knew the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata because Heifetz wanted to record it the next day, Kapell said yes, then stayed up all night to learn it.  [The italics are mine.]  The recording, exultant and showing great feeling, was made in Hollywood in 1950; it explains why Heifetz said he could never forgive Kapell for dying young.”

I have that record, and it is glorious.  But what kind of talent is it that can learn overnight – and to Kapell’s exacting standards – a piece as profound and demanding as Brahms’ third violin sonata?  For a recording with Heifetz, no less!

Harold Schonberg wrote in The Great Pianists, published in 1963, that “Many American pianists of the postwar generation have the potentialities to develop into major artists, but as yet it is a little early to make any predictions.  The most promising of all, William Kapell, died in an airplane crash in 1953.  Kapell had won a Naumburg Competition award, and he went on to impress an international public with a spectacularly honest technique (never any bluff or cover-up), a forthright musical approach and a fierce integrity.  His playing had that indefinable thing known as command, and he was well on his way to being one of the century’s important pianists when his plane from Australia went down shortly before arriving in San Francisco.”

I was introduced to Kapell’s playing in 1964 through an RCA Victor album entitled “The Unforgettable William Kapell”.  This record includes the Khachaturian Piano Concerto, a lovely interpretation of Evocación by Albéniz, the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and a performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz that is sheer wizardry.  In my opinion, this performance comes as close to pianistic perfection as it is possible to do.  Never has the indefinable “command” referred to by Schonberg been more in evidence.  Regarding this performance, Tim Page of the Washington Post writes that it had “all the energy and the manic wildness of Horowitz, but it also [had] a sort of cool intelligence and a formal understanding which… wasn’t always in the Horowitz recordings.”  He goes on to say, “I would very, very quickly name it one of the most extraordinary piano recordings I have ever heard.”

The following clip is the only known video of Kapell.  It is from Alistair Cooke’s TV program “Omnibus”, and includes a sonata by Scarlatti, the Nocturne in E Flat by Chopin, and an arrangement for piano by Emilio Napolitano of an Argentine folk song, “Gato”.

Claudia Cassidy, the famously acerbic critic for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in her tribute to Kapell, “He was, this smoldering, passionate young pianist, generous, lovable, deeply gentle of heart.  I loved his playing above all other playing, and this can scarcely be a secret to anyone who has read this column.  So not for myself, but to tell you what he was like, now that he is gone, here is a part of one of his last letters:

Why do you think playing in Chicago always is some sort of test for me? … Music isn’t enough.  Performers aren’t enough.  There must be someone who loves music as much as life.  For you, and remember this always, those of us with something urgent to say, we give everything.

“Kapell gave, and I am eternally grateful that I was here to listen.”

Franz Liszt: Etude No. 39 “Un Sospiro” Pianist – Marc-Andre Hamelin

hamelinFor many of you, this video will serve as an introduction to the pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who was born in Montreal in 1961.  Hamelin is an extraordinary virtuoso who has performed and recorded much of the less well-known repertoire, including many works that less technically gifted pianists would not even attempt.  Yet, as this video demonstrates, he plays with a musical feeling no less exceptional than his technique.

“Un Sospiro” translates as “The Sigh”.  We read on Wikipedia that this etude by Liszt “is a study in crossing hands, playing a simple melody with alternating hands, and arpeggios.”  It is also exceptionally beautiful, and though the image quality in this video is not especially good, the sound is excellent.

Though no one should be placed in the position of following Marc-Andre Hamelin, I am happy to present a second performance of “Un Sospiro”, this one featuring my favorite young pianist, Szuyu Su, whom I introduced last month playing Prokofiev’s “Harp” prelude.  Rachel, as she likes to be called, is a little older in this video, perhaps 9 years old, and I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb at all in predicting a brilliant concert career for her in the years ahead.

If you would like to see more of Rachel, you can see all of her YouTube uploads (54 at latest count) here:

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 1:02 am  Comments (1)  
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