The glorious career of the Texan pianist who captured Russian hearts during the Cold War era.
When he was 3 years old, Van Cliburn (1934-2013) told his mother, a piano teacher, that he wanted lessons; at 4, he gave his first concert, at a local college; at 5, he declared he was going to be a concert pianist, like Rachmaninoff. Cliburn exceeded that dream: in 1958, at 23, he won first prize in Russia’s first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, a feat that catapulted him to rock-star celebrity. Beloved by Russians, Khrushchev included, and by his own countrymen, Cliburn seemed a balm to Cold War hostilities. Biographer, translator, and journalist Cliff (The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama, 2012, etc.), former film and theater critic for the London Times, faces two challenges in his rousing, well-researched biography: the first, ably met, is to convey Cliburn’s astonishing talent and sound; he was “ecstatically lyrical, thrillingly Romantic, and symphonic in scale.” The second challenge, not as fully achieved, is to create an intimate portrait of a man who rebuffed probing questions and carefully honed stories he—and his ever hovering mother— told interviewers and biographers. He was the shy, God-fearing, gangly boy from Texas, warm, effusive, and modest. “When fans told him he had changed their lives, he was genuinely amazed,” writes Cliff. “When public figures extolled him as a hero, he all but scoffed.” But if he did not believe his own legend, still that legend became his public image: “His friends adored him, protected him, smiled at his foibles, and spoke of him with a warm glow—but few felt they really knew him.” Cliff reveals Cliburn’s interest in astrology and the occult; the scandal that resulted when his male companion sued for palimony and lost; and his nine-year retirement, a response to the pressures of fame. Throughout, the author vividly reprises major historical events: Sputnik, Khrushchev’s blustering speeches, the Berlin Wall, Maoist oppression, and Nixon’s visit to China.
Sweeping history combines with a sensitive rendering of Cliburn’s extraordinary passion.