...an engaging, richly detailed account of a remarkable man. That Van Cliburn has faded so from our collective memory is almost as astonishing as this improbable tale itself ... The book is not all politics, of course. Cliff deftly places his subject in the context of the evolving musical culture of the past two centuries.
If it is tempting to overstate the moment’s cultural and political significance, Cliburn in Russia nevertheless offers a fascinating perspective on a decade of nuclear tests, espionage schemes and efforts to close the missile gap. This story is to the Cold War what ping-pong diplomacy was to President Nixon’s opening to China. It is both entertaining and illuminating, and Mr. Cliff tells it beautifully.
The narrative closely follows the young pianist's discovery and conquest of Russia, and Russia's conquest of him. The crush of fans, the tension and trials of the competition, Cliburn's quirks are all recorded here in a narrative rich with anecdotes ... But Cliff also delivers the more serious news in chapters establishing the Cold War context, the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev ... All this the author handles smoothly and informatively. A cultural historian of the kind only the British seem to produce, Cliff is at home in Texan, American, Russian, political and piano cultures ... a solid history of a most remarkable young man caught at a most remarkable time.
...while Cliff, a British historian, presents a wider angle, portraying the piano world as a frenzy of liaisons and threading his story with larger cultural and geopolitical details ... Cliff offers such a sweeping perspective... As it is, those who prefer an insider narrative will favor Isacoff, while those less concerned with musical details will choose Cliff’s book. That being said, each of these authors presents a diligent account, with Cliff getting the nod for compression and elegance.
...[an] entertaining, delightful biography ... Cliff does a magnificent job of setting things in historical context, breaking away from Cliburn’s story to vividly recount the last hours of Stalin as well as the rise of the 'voluble, roly-poly' Nikita Khrushchev ... Cliff has a great eye for entertaining stories and lively anecdotes, and he seems genuinely fond of everyone he writes about (even Stalin, sort of). At times, Khrushchev and his colorful escapades threaten to steal the book from the more one-dimensional Cliburn ... If the book has a flaw, it is that Cliff never gets inside Cliburn’s skin.
Nigel Cliff, as given to emotional flourishes in his prose as Cliburn was at the piano, blends Cold War history and biography. Vivid details are his forte ... Cliff’s subtitle overstates, of course, but his hero is enchanting.
[Cliff] has written a freshly sourced account of these momentous Moscow nights. He places them aptly at the heart of the nuclear conflict and poignantly in the personal odyssey of a lanky, gay pianist from a small prairie town who never wanted to do much except play Russian music ... Mr Cliff does well, despite some musical infelicities, to describe the big game of culture wars and Khrushchev’s capricious adventurism. Cliburn himself remains an enigma, even if his triumph was to show that music sometimes has the power to shape history.