A little over a year ago, when I was back in Brussels visiting my parents, I mentioned to my mother that I was soon going to interview Van Cliburn.
Immediately, inspired, she remembered having heard him play, just once, in Mexico City 50 years earlier. That memory had endured intact in her mind for over half a century -- a tribute to the power of a live performance and of a great artist and pianist. Van Cliburn, at the height of the Cold War won first place at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition, returning to a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
His recording of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto sold more records that year than Elvis Presley; his fame in those years was equal to the King of Rock & Roll. Hard to think that this kind of recognition for a classical musician would be possible today. Van Cliburn was chosen to be on the cover of Time Magazine as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."
In May 2012, Van Cliburn was back in New York City. Christie's was auctioning part of his possessions he had until then felt so possessed by; but now he decided it was time to let go of them and of the hold they had for so long exerted over him. When I asked if he would do the same of the many recordings still dormant and not yet issued, he was less certain: they were to his magnificent ear and mind not quite perfect enough to let go. He would hold on to them a bit longer he told the enraptured audience. Yet, now, with the tremendous loss of his person, the vacuum it leaves, of this gentle, magnificent soul, we will, I hope be able to console ourselves slightly with these recordings being released, hearing the voice of one of the greatest lyrical pianists the world has ever known. Fingers crossed.
Here are four minutes of our conversation from our LIVE from the NYPL evening which took place on May 15, 2012.
For a complete recording of the evening go to the archives at www.nypl.org/live