03/04/2013 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In the Key of Life: Van Cliburn and the Piano Double

Van Cliburn died a few days ago. There's a story I heard that demonstrates the impact Van Cliburn had, not just on "the people," but even on the giants of the musical world, and that also reveals that famously impish character of the great Sviatoslav Richter, who judged the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition that made Van Cliburn an instant household name around the world. The judges were supposed to score each contestant from 0 to 10, and despite a strong field of contestants, so taken with Van Cliburn was Richter that he repeatedly scored the others 0 so as to reserve all his points for Van Cliburn, to whom he would consistently assign a score of 100, to the consternation of the administrators who had to keep chopping his 100s down to 10.

So much is made in the media about the admittedly interesting historical dimension to Van Cliburn's story, set amidst the backdrop of Cold War rivalry, it is easy for the public now to overlook his musical gifts. At the height of his abilities, from the late 1950s into the mid 1970s, he was a pianist par excellence. He always exhibited a warm golden tone. His sound and concepts were big and extroverted, (reminiscent, one might imagine, of Anton Rubinstein by all accounts), without a hint of tawdry showmanship or the musically banal. His playing was clean yet never dry or austere, and in this many old-timers were reminded of Josef Lhevine. More than anything, he exuded an utterly natural musical vision and characteristic lack of anything that seemed forced or artificial. While his playing therefore was not "musically incorrect," so too his playing was neither too careful nor pedantic or cerebral. On the contrary, it was often exciting, sometimes daring, and nearly always infused with that most elusive of qualities -- transportive power.

Looking back, I think he must have heavily influenced my musical tastes. When I was a boy, my mom gave me one of the greatest presents I have ever received -- a subscription to a Time-Life series of records, with a new set for a different composer arriving each month or so (4 LPs to a handsome boxed set, along with a very nice biographical booklet). They did an impeccable job with the difficult task of choosing among the vast works and recordings for each composer a representative selection that would fit on a mere 4 LPs. These recordings were a constant source of inspiration. The piano concerto selections drew heavily from Van Cliburn's enormous discography, and his sound still resonates with me today. I still recall the thrill of hearing him as a youngster with my parents at a solo recital in Portland in the mid-70s.

Feeling nostalgic at the recent news, and having no access at the time to my treasured recordings, I searched the internet for some video clips of Van Cliburn. I could not resist going first to the work with which he is so famously associated, earning him first prize at the Tchaikovsky competition in 1958 -- the Piano Concerto No. 1 by the competition's namesake. Rather than hear him play the triumphant and bombastic opening lines of the first movement, however, I was more in the mood to focus my attention on the bucolic second movement and its tender rippling melodies. He can be heard (and seen) playing this movement, with Kiril Kondrashin conducting, in 1962:

I am instantly struck by how clean and unforced he plays the simple opening melody, devoid of any distracting accents that plague many performances of this deceptively difficult passage.

Next I stumbled across another priceless piece of old footage, where Van Cliburn is surrounded by a throng of admirers playing my favorite of the 19 Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies -- No 12:

One can glimpse here from the audience crowding the piano the palpable excitement he could generate with his stage presence. True to form, Van Cliburn pulls off a performance that is ostentatiously virtuosic, as this concert showpiece should be played, yet does not sacrifice or cheapen any musical lines in the pursuit of that quality.

While in law school in Philadelphia, I sometimes visited the Steinway dealer to get my "fix" during my days of exile from a proper instrument, and especially to play the D (9 ft) Steinways, some of which were for sale and some of which were among the various concert instruments for artists to select when playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and other venues. On one occasion I discovered a concert piano which, after playing merely the first few notes of a Scriabin Etude, caused me nearly to fall over backwards in my chair. So sonorous, mournful and haunting was its midrange that simply playing a C Major scale could induce tears. I played a little more, then sauntered trance-like to the manager's office, who having overheard me play and seeing my jaw agape, needed no prompting and swooned empathetically: "Yes I know... you were playing C56879 [or some such number]... Amazing isn't it? That's the piano we just got after searching for years for a musical "double" to replace the concert instrument we lost to Van Cliburn when he made us an offer to purchase we simply could not refuse on an instrument that was strictly not for sale."

It turns out Van Cliburn was an impetuous soul, and when he fell in love with something, he simply had to have it, and could be very persistent. For instance, I am told that one day while feeling rather manic on tour, he decided he loved his hotel room so much, he bought everything in it -- furniture, drapes, and all, and took it back to his home in Texas to adorn a room that was intended to recreate or preserve the way he felt at that moment. Apparently he felt the same about a particular D Steinway in Philadelphia one day. The dealer told me they always regretted their decision and had long struggled in vain to find an instrument that emulated its qualities, resulting finally in the piano it was my privilege to play that day. I've not encountered its equal since and surely never will.

I imagine Van Cliburn now in paradise, playing, for the first time, a piano whose qualities finally exceed even that D Steinway he found in Philadelphia. Perhaps he is playing one of Rachmaninoff's Suites for Two Pianos with Sergei himself.