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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Schubert: Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 Pianist – Alfred Brendel

Franz Schubert

The beneficent genie who granted me the ability to play any three piano sonatas of my choosing is growing impatient with me to name my third sonata.  My first choice, you may remember, was Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, and my second was the sonata by Samuel Barber.  Interestingly, both of those works date from the decade of my birth, but my third choice is from a much earlier time, from 1828 to be exact, the last year in the life of Franz Schubert.

The Sonata in B-flat was Schubert’s last major work for the piano.  It was completed in September 1828, just two months before Schubert died at the age of 31.  His death has been variously ascribed to typhoid fever, syphilis, and mercury poisoning – mercury being a common treatment for syphilis in Schubert’s time – but whatever the cause, it is my opinion that in the entire history of music, which is replete with premature deaths, Schubert’s was the most grievous loss of all.  Can you imagine the musical riches that would have been ours if he had lived another 10, 20, or 30 years?  If he had lived even as long as Beethoven, whom Schubert revered and who also died too young, that would have given him another 25 years.  What a profound, tragic loss!

This sublime sonata has been a favorite of mine since my days at the University of Colorado.  It is performed in this video by the great Alfred Brendel, in a recording made in 1988 at the Middle Temple in London.

Published in: on June 30, 2010 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Samuel Barber: Sonata for Piano, Op. 26 Pianist – Vladimir Horowitz

Samuel Barber and Vladimir Horowitz

In my post of January 22, I introduced the idea of a beneficent genie who grants me the ability to play any three piano sonatas of my choosing.  One would be the Prokofiev sonata – the 6th – that I featured on that post, and another would have to be today’s selection, the Sonata Op. 26 by Samuel Barber.  This sonata was composed in 1949, and was premiered by Vladimir Horowitz early in 1950.  I was introduced to it in 1964 in a recital by Van Cliburn, and later purchased the extraordinary recording by Horowitz presented here.

In his notes to the Horowitz recording, the noted pianist, critic, and author Samuel Chotzinoff writes as follows:

Samuel Barber is an acknowledged master craftsman.  The classical sonata form is sympathetic to him and he knows how to put it to modern use.  Yet, notwithstanding his knowledge, his proficiency and his modernism, he remains an unabashed romantic.  And it is his romanticism which, I believe, attracted Horowitz and made the great pianist the ideal interpreter of the Sonata, Op. 26. Apart from its romantic subject matter, the composition as piano music seems tailor-made for Horowitz.  It bristles with splendid difficulties; and the final fugue, so instrumentally conceived, so bold and outspoken, invites the pianist to storm the heavens.  Any fugue today may be looked upon with suspicion as an outmoded form, quite inappropriate for the expression of the modern scene.  But the fugue in this sonata, though it dazzles the listener as a brilliant and intricate tour-de-force, is more than a sensational essay.  It comes as a logical climax to the emotions generated and exploited in the preceding movements.  And it is optimistic music, brightly affirmative, a kind of healthy credo.  It is music that in Goethe’s time would be called “yea-saying.”

It is a great pity that there is no video of Horowitz playing this sonata.  There is no question that video enhances a great performance, and there are other recordings of this sonata on YouTube that include video that I could have chosen.  None, however, can match the power, technical command, and expressiveness that Horowitz brought to this sonata, and I am tempted to say that none ever will.  Horowitz played this piece as if he wrote it, and when I listen to his performance, it is with an awe that approaches reverence.

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 11:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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