Friday, March 1, 2013

Van Cliburn: Perfect Pressure

We all have our favorites and can't explain why, exactly.  My favorite pianist is Van Cliburn, who died a couple of days ago.  I knew very little about his life until I read his various obituaries.  This was not an accident: when we have favorites, we prefer to keep the life obscure so that--like music itself--negative spaces can be filled in by our own vague imaginings and yearnings.

All I knew was that he played at his height when he was young, during the Fifties and Sixties, around the time he gained fame in Moscow, in a way answering the Bolshoi in New York the way Shepard answered Gagarin.  When I was a kid, I figured the Van was an insinuation of aristocracy, which portended his cultural stardom, like Charles Van Doren--the authentic artist, where Liberace was the cartoon facsimile.  Anyway, he was so famous that I never thought to listen to him.

When I was no longer a kid, however, I discovered his recordings of Brahms, which I have played a hundred times in recent years, and turned into a kind of background music for my editing mind.  I gave the recordings to my children, so much did I love them. I still didn't investigate his life or ask why he stopped appearing. I never had to know more than what I sensed, that his youthful power and precision was tempered by some kind of erotic hurt, which made the pressure of his fingers perfect. Just watch him play--in 1958, at the Moscow competition that made him famous, the first movement of the Rachmaninoff piano concerto no. 3. Try not to feel gratitude.

This, by the way, is my 500th. post, so a little poignant background music may be forgiven.