The pianist smiling in triumph on stage at the end of the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow was probably not the one the organisers had wanted. An event set up to showcase young Soviet pianists as ‘the best in the world’ and backed to the hilt by leader Nikita Khrushchev’s government would surely award its first prize to home-grown talent? And yet here on 13 April 1958, enjoying the acclaim of jury and audience alike, was Van Cliburn. From Texas, US, of all places.
Relations between the USSR and US were not exactly cordial when the competition began on 18 March. Though the terror of Stalin’s rule was now five years in the past, his successor had focused his attentions on ramping up tension with the West. With the Sputnik programme giving his country an early lead over the US in the space race, Khruschchev had made much of the USSR’s rapidly increasing nuclear capacity, threatening that he could use it to bring widespread annihilation should he chose to do so. The Cold War had reached freezing point.
And yet, almost from the moment he set foot in Moscow, the reception for the 23-year-old Cliburn could not have been warmer. ‘I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music,’ he recalled later, when asked if he had been aware of the political significance of his win. Lanky, slightly awkward and with long fingers that glided gracefully over the keyboard, the tall Texan soon became a favourite with this allegedly most inhospitable of hosts.
And at the final at the Great Hall of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, his performances of Tchaikovsky’s First and Rachmaninov’s Third concertos had the audience even more in the palms of those enormous hands – an eight-minute standing ovation followed. Within the jury, meanwhile, pianist Sviatoslav Richter (who we named one of the greatest pianists of all time) described Cliburn as ‘a genius’, scoring him 100 out of 100.
But what would Khrushchev make of this American usurper? Surely the Soviet leader would not tolerate such an affront? Quite the opposite, in fact. ‘Is he the best pianist?’ he is said to have replied when asked by the judges for his approval of their decision. ‘Then give him the prize!’ The two were later photographed sharing a warm embrace at the post-competition reception.
Who was Van Cliburn?
Winning such a showpiece event brought Van Cliburn instant fame on a global scale. Though he was not entirely unknown before heading off for Moscow – his victory in the Leventritt Award in the US in 1954 had led to engagements with several important US orchestras – he was now an international star. On returning to the US, he was heralded by a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York, the first ever musician to receive such an honour, and featured on the front cover of Time magazine. Major honours in both his own country and in the USSR – the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of Friendship respectively – soon followed.
Though his career was never to reach such stratospheric heights again, Cliburn retained a cult following for years to come. His RCA Victor recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, made in the same year as his competition win, went on to become the first classical album to achieve platinum status (more than one million copies) in the US and he continued to perform to packed houses. He returned on several occasions to the Soviet Union, where enthusiastic members of his audiences included Khrushchev himself.
And in 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was launched in Fort Worth in his honour. Though he died in 2012, every four years, brilliant young pianists from across the world gather in his home state, aiming to emulate the feats of the player who achieved the most dramatic competition win of them all.
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