Richard Nisley

Our Man in Moscow
Music - Classical Released - Nov 11, 2012

The Cold War was at its coldest in 1958 when a lanky 23 three-year-old pianist fresh from Julliard competed in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, defied world politics, and took home the gold medal.

The judges had no choice but to award him first-place because the people who crowded into the concert hall each day went absolutely nuts over the young American who resembled Jimmy Stewart and played liked their beloved Vladimir Horowotiz. They gave him a standing ovation after every performance.

Cliburn may not have been the absolute best pianist there, but he peaked at the right moment and played the wheels off Rachmaninoff’s difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 and followed it with a stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The judges had to clear their decision all the way up the ladder to the Kremlin but if they hadn’t awarded first prize to Cliburn the fear was the people would have dismantled the concert hall brick by brick.

Cliburn returned to America like a conquering hero and was given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City. Time magazine put him on the cover. RCA records signed him to an exclusive contract and had him record the Tchaikovsky concerto which sold a million copies, a distinction unheard of in classical music. To date, the record has achieved triple-platinum status.

Cliburn discovered he didn’t enjoy the jet-set life of endless concert appearances. It seemed the only piece concert goers wanted him to play was the Tchaikovsky concerto, while he was equally at home performing Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Schumann. The critics, mostly eastern snobs, did not take to his Louisiana drawl or his self-effacing demeanor, as the Russians had, and dismissed his interpretative skills as immature. They loved him in Russia, however, where he returned several times and always to thunderous approval. At age 43, Cliburn retired from public life. Except for a few rare occasions--he has performed at the White House for every president from Eisenhower to Obama--he has stayed retired.

The eastern critics eventually gave him a grudging respect. The marketplace told the real story. For the most part, Cliburn’s recorded catalogue has stayed in print all these years, a claim even the legendary Hororowitz can’t make.
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