Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. (July 12, 1934 – February 27, 2013) was an American pianist who, at the age of 23, achieved worldwide recognition when he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 (during the Cold War). Cliburn’s mother, a piano teacher and an accomplished pianist in her own right, discovered him playing at age three, mimicking one of her students and arranged for him to start taking lessons. Cliburn developed a rich, round tone and a singing-voice-like phrasing, having been taught from the start to sing each piece.
Cliburn toured domestically and overseas. He played for royalty, heads of state, and every US president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama.
The Wall Street Journal said on his death that Cliburn was a “cultural hero” who “rocketed to unheard-of stardom for a classical musician in the U.S. Calling him “the rare classical musician to enjoy rock star status”, the Associated Press on his death noted the 1958 Time magazine cover story that likened him to “Horowitz, Liberace, and Presley all rolled into one”.
A year after Cliburn’s death, a free anniversary concert was held on February 27, 2014, in his honor in downtown Fort Worth. “It’s part of the Cliburn ideology of sharing the music with the larger audience,” said Jacques Marquis, the Cliburn Foundation president. Cliburn lent his name to the International Piano Competition, which he viewed as a gathering of classical masterpieces played by young gifted artists.
A highlight of Cliburn’s legacy was the profoundly positive reception of his person and performances in the Soviet Union during and after the Tchaikovsky competition. The same is true of his reception during and after the Cold War in the Soviet Union. According to Life (1958), the excitement and hype surrounding the news of Cliburn’s debut in Moscow was almost too much to bear for some. They became infatuated with him and made no attempt to conceal it. “In the preliminaries, which had enlisted 50 young pianists from 19 different countries, Van was the big crowd-pleaser. Fans called him Vanyusha. Girls trailed him to the hotel. Soviet record companies pleaded with him to wax anything. In the finals, when he crashed out the last chords of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, the ecstatic audience in Moscow chanted “first prize-first prize.”
Mark MacNamara of the San Francisco Classical Voice wrote: “The 6-foot 4-inch aw-shucks kid from Shreveport was 23, the son of an oil executive and a Juilliard graduate, and by all accounts didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Indeed, much of his charm, then and throughout his life, was that he seemed so genuinely unaware of intrigue and enmity. Cliburn’s talents were astounding, and he had a heart that loved people and music. This is a legacy that lasts.”
As of the last International Tchaikovsky Competition (2019), Van Cliburn is still the only American to win the competition in piano. Two Americans have won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in its 58-year history. (wikipedia)
Recorded hot on the heels of his landmark Gold Medal victory in the first Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, the 23-year-old Van Cliburn’s million-selling 1958 Tchaikovsky First remains one of this war-horse’s most poetic, intelligently paced versions on disc. If an operatic aesthetic governs Cliburn’s golden tone and big technique, the heart of the ballet lies within Kondrashin’s enlivening support, especially in the Finale’s syncopations. (by Jed Distler)
Van Cliburn (piano)
RCA Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kiril Kondrashin
Piano Concerto No. 1, In B-Flat Minor Op. 23:
01 First Movement: Allegro Non Troppo E Molto Maestoso; Allegro Con Spirito 20.48
02 Second Movement: Andante Simplice Prestissimo; Tempo I 6.55
03 Third Movement: Allegro Con Fuoco 6.47
Music composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky