February 27, 2013


Трудно высказать и не высказать
Все, что на сердце у меня.

It is hard to express, and hard to hold back,
Everything that is in my heart.

—Mikhail Matusovsky, "Подмосковные вечера" ("Moscow Nights")

The last time I heard Van Cliburn live was in 1998, at Tanglewood, when he played Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the last-minute scramble for student seats in the Shed, I had ended up sitting next to a British conductor. The performance itself was mannered and decadent—the melodic line brought aggressively to the fore, the tempo wayward and undulating, even meandering. Cliburn got a standing ovation, which slightly puzzled my conductor friend. "But it wasn't very good," he said. "Yeah," I said, "but he's Van Cliburn." We both agreed that it was more than enough explanation.

The audience was, of course, applauding the reputation as much as the man. This is not to say that Cliburn, who passed away today, was some sort of fraud. At his best, Cliburn could take his place among the greats. And even that Tanglewood performance, for all its interpretive oddness, still had plenty to marvel at: the athletically glamorous sound, the rubato, the accented chords landing with the impact of a blacksmith's hammer. But the reputation inevitably preceded him, the machinery of celebrity so familiar that it obscured just how singular that reputation really was. Because Cliburn's fame, his image—the fair-haired conqueror, the national hero, the eternal prodigy—was actually quite strange. That he eventually could wear it with a kind of grace was not the least of his achievements.

Cliburn's reputation was made, of course, at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, but the reputation was built on something more than pianistic skill. The Russian public's reaction to Cliburn, after all, was not one of impressed acknowledgement, or hard-won respect; it was love at first sight. What was often missed in the translation of that reputation back into American terms was the fact that it was a product of Cliburn's nonconformity, his disinclination to stay within the bounds of musical propriety. I initially thought it an odd-couple pairing that both Glenn Gould and Van Cliburn made such sensations in the Cold-War-era Soviet Union, but the more I listened, the less odd it seemed. Gould's playing tended toward the hermetic, Cliburn's toward the hedonistic, but both of them also had a tendency toward the outré and the theatrical that seemed to connect with Russian audiences. Witness Cliburn, in concert in Moscow, performing Rachmaninoff's E-flat major Prelude, op. 23, no. 6:

One couldn't ask for a better example of a performer more in thrall to the musical flow, more eager to be buffeted by the music's implicated emotion, even sentimentality. The amount of rhythmic liberty Cliburn takes in that clip, the instances of subito-this-or-that, not to mention Cliburn's physical demeanor, verges on kitsch, but it never quite tips over, and the result is ravishing. Cliburn's playing possessed a special kind of fearlessness—risking vulgarity in the pursuit of an aura of heightened emotional earnestness.

It was in contrast with his persona, shy and reserved, but Cliburn was always more at home at the piano (if not necessarily in front of an audience) anyway. One of my most indelible memories of him is seeing television footage from his performance at the White House in 1987, at the time his first public appearance in years. He played one of his favorite encores—the Russian pop song "Moscow Nights"—while singing along with Mikhail Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet delegation. While the Americans in the audience (I remember Nancy Reagan, in particular, who was sitting next to Gorbachev) looked pleased but slightly baffled, Cliburn was absolutely in his element. For all the celebrity, all the concert-opening performances of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Cliburn nevertheless seemed a little bit at odds with the American culture that lauded him; but, behind the keyboard, that quality was transformed into generosity and daring. Sometimes it came out mannered, but other times, it had an anchorite's ecstatic eloquence. That original Tchaikovsky concerto with Kondrashin, the Rachmaninoff concerti he recorded with Reiner, his terrific version of Rachmaninoff's second Sonata—Cliburn's best moments will remain both touchstones and, paradoxically, forever his own.

February 04, 2013

On the Page

Catching up on some recent reviews, since, now that I finally took down my festive holiday tree, I have to take it down from the blog, too.

Reviewing Corey Cerovsek and Paavali Jumppanen.
Boston Globe, January 15, 2013.

Reviewing Randall Hodgkinson—and the premiere of Gunther Schuller's Piano Trio no. 3.
Boston Globe, January 16, 2013.

Sounds Heard: Ehnahre—Old Earth.
NewMusicBox, January 22, 2013.

Reviewing the Boston Chamber Music Society.
Boston Globe, January 22, 2013.

Reviewing Dinosaur Annex.
Boston Globe, January 29, 2013.

New Enlgand's Prospect: Object Oriented. Reviewing the Callithumpian Consort.
NewMusicBox, January 31, 2013.

Oh, and this happened, too.

I think that calls for a drink!

I never did make that Oxford Swig from the last post, but here's a new one. Warning: it is a seriously musty drink. Having spent far too much of my life in various librarial iterations of the name, I'm guessing that funk is now permanently in my blood, because I like that sort of flavor. Anyway—

Basement Stack

2 oz. Ransom Old Tom gin
1 oz. rainwater Madeira
½ oz. lime juice
¼ oz. maple syrup
A few drops of vanilla extract
a couple healthy dashes of Fee Bros. plum bitters

Stir it up with ice and then strain into something that won't tip over onto your book.
Ever wonder why old books smell the way they do? Wonder no more.