So it’s ave atque vale to Van Cliburn, who died yesterday at the age of 78 in Fort Worth. Classical music and its performers have all but vanished from the mainstream culture but, back in the day, Van Cliburn was a superstar, a kind of concert-stage Elvis. Unexpectedly winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, he was instantly transformed from a pianist into a culture warrior, the fresh-faced, courtly young American defeating the best the Soviets had to offer, and right in the belly of the beast, too. Like Bobby Fischer besting Boris Spassky in chess 14 years later, Cliburn was a national hero, albeit reluctantly, when it was still not politically incorrect to have one.
That Cliburn’s subsequent career never achieved similar heights matters little for his reputation. Just as for an earlier generation “Paderewski” became synonymous with “pianist,” so for a time was the name of Van Cliburn. By the time I became a music critic in 1973, though, Cliburn’s career was already in decline — a victim not of any failing technique, but his neurasthenic temperament. His repertoire gradually shrank to his two calling-card concertos, the Tchaikovsky and the Rachmaninoff Third, while his solo work centered around Chopin. Shy and reclusive, he retired from active concertizing in 1978. He made a brief comeback attempt; when I heard him in Los Angeles in 1994 (playing, as I recall, the Rach 3), there was plenty of the old fire, but his nerves, shall we say, got the better of him.
But in his prime, he was something. And as one of the first heroes of the Cold War, he was even better. The Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow, 1958: