Moscow Nights - The Van Cliburn Story

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Moscow Nights - The Van Cliburn Story

Post by Ricordanza » Mon Aug 05, 2019 6:14 am

The subtitle of this book accurately describes author Nigel Cliff’s purpose: “The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and his Piano Transformed the Cold War.” The heart of the book, of course, is the story of Cliburn’s astonishing victory in 1958 at the initial Tchaikovsky piano competition. It was astonishing because the Soviet authorities established the contest to showcase their cultural superiority, much the same as their efforts to demonstrate their superiority in space exploration and military might. A Soviet winner had been preselected, but jury members, including Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, held firm in their evaluation of the contestants.

Cliburn’s Gold Medal in this competition was only the beginning of the story. Due to his ability as a musical performer, his appearance, and his personality, Cliburn achieved unprecedented popularity in the Soviet Union (including its leader, Khrushchev) and this had a surprising and substantial impact on the relationship between the USSR and the United States.

The book also highlights an incident three decades later when Cliburn was persuaded to come out of “retirement” and perform at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1987. Incredibly, this event turned the summit from disaster to accomplishment.

Although the book contains plenty of material on geopolitics, it by no means ignores the subject of Van Cliburn as a pianist and as an individual. One could say that the central problem of Cliburn's musical career was that he achieved his greatest fame so early, as a 23-year-old competition winner.

This author’s prose style is, at times, a bit florid for my taste, but overall, I found the book fascinating. Whether you are a fan of classical music or a student of history, or both (like me), you will enjoy this book.

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Re: Moscow Nights - The Van Cliburn Story

Post by John F » Mon Aug 05, 2019 7:23 am

When the blue-ribbon jury selected Van Cliburn as the winner, there was concern among the Soviet members that they might suffer for choosing him. The chairman of the jury, I think it was Gilels, phoned Khrushchev to tell him. Khrushchev: "Is he the best?" Gilels: "Yes." Khrushchev: "Then give him the medal."

The field was far from the strongest in the competition's history. Tied for second place were Lin-shi Kim (China) and Lev Vlasenko (USSR); third, Naum Shtarkman (USSR); 4th, Eduard Miansiarov (USSR); 5th, Milena Mollova (Bulgaria); 6th, Nadia Gedda-Nova (Italy); 7th, Toyoski Matsuura (Japan); and Daniel Pollack (US). The only other name pianists were Evelyne Crochet, special diploma, and Jerome Lowenthal, diploma. Van Cliburn was not unknown in the US, he won the Leventritt Award and debuted in Carnegie Hall, but he had never played abroad.

In the 1962 Tchaikovsky competition the Soviets were determined to win, so they pressured Vladimir Ashkenazy to enter. He was already far too well established to be playing in competitions, and in his memoirs he says so. In a much stronger field, thanks no doubt to the immense publicity for the 1958 competition and its winner, Ashkenazy shared the first prize with John Ogdon. Tied for second was Susan Starr, about whom we've heard in another thread here.
John Francis

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