For a few months in 1989, a teenager named Alexei Sultanov was perhaps the most celebrated -- and certainly the most discussed -- young pianist in the world.
He had come to the United States from the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union to play in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. The author Joseph Horowitz, who heard him there, called him "a veritable wild child from Tashkent, in the shadow of the Himalayas." Sultanov's playing was fast, urgent, hyper-emotional and breathtakingly loud: He pounded the keyboard so hard in performance of Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz No. 1" that a string groaned and snapped.
And yet, on June 11, 1989, Sultanov was awarded the top prize from America's wealthiest classical music competition -- $15,000 in cash, a recital at Carnegie Hall, a recording contract, and sponsored tours throughout the United States and Europe. Upon hearing of his victory, Sultanov mounted the stage as though he were in a "Rocky" movie, grabbed the trophy and hoisted it over his head, triumphant.
It was the last great moment in his career.
Alexei Sultanov, 35 years old, died on June 30 at his home in Fort Worth. The cause of death has not been determined, but Sultanov's neurologist, Edward Kramer, said it was likely due to a series of strokes the pianist had suffered, beginning as far back as 1995 and culminating in a massive hemorrhage in 2001 that left him partially paralyzed.
Word of Sultanov's Cliburn victory was carried in newspapers around the globe; his death has attracted scant notice and virtually nothing outside of Texas. The longest obituary, by Wayne Lee Gay at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, began: "Alexei Sultanov soared to musical heights that other musicians only dream of, and crashed to earth with personal tragedy that few have to bear."
In fact, the "crash" began even before the Cliburn competition was over, for few medalists have ever been so controversial. "Many in the audience adore him," Horowitz wrote in his 1990 study of the Cliburn competition, "The Ivory Trade." "The pianists I talk to react with horror or admiration: There is no middle ground."
That would never change. Denise Mullins, who was the Cliburn Foundation's artistic administrator in 1989, put the gentlest spin on it in an interview with the Star-Telegram. "He took things to the absolute edge of the cliff, and it was very exciting to hear," she said. "He wasn't afraid to take a chance on stage, and there aren't a lot of pianists who do that. But that worked for him, and it worked against him."
Some of the Cliburn judges were less kind. The venerable Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sandor called Sultanov's win a "tremendous scandal" and suggested that he should have been granted nothing more than a scholarship for further study. Another judge, the British pianist John Lill, wondered aloud "whether the gold medal will weigh too heavily on a performer as young as Sultanov, still not out of conservatory, still not fully formed artistically and yet to learn a breadth of repertory."
Nor were many of the reviewers helpful. "Alexei Sultanov seems a nice enough young man, with a full head of black hair, dark eyes in an open face and fingers both graceful and strong," Peter Goodman wrote in Newsday after the Carnegie Hall debut in 1990. "Is it his fault that at age 20 he has not yet got much idea of what Mozart wrote, or Beethoven? Or that he can handle the pyrotechnical aspects of Scriabin, Prokofiev and Liszt, but with barely an inkling of what deeper meanings their music might have?"
And Alan Rich, writing in the pages of the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, called Sultanov's first California performance a "generally dreadful concert -- easily the worst debut recital I've attended since the last Cliburn winner earned his obligatory American engagement." Still, amidst it all, Rich offered the hope that Sultanov might now "retire from the limelight, find himself a good teacher of art history and aesthetics and come back as a musician -- not just a piano player -- in four or five years."
It never happened, of course. Sultanov was now irrevocably caught up in the machinery of the music business, and he didn't handle it very well. "When you have to play a concert in Warsaw, then hop a plane to London, do three radio interviews in English, then play another concert, it's an exhaustion you simply can't foresee," Mullins said. "There were times when he was difficult. I think he was tired and I think he was frustrated. He loved to enjoy his life. He wanted to see his family. He wanted to see his friends."
Sultanov fulfilled most of the engagements required of the Cliburn winner and then his bookings trickled off, leaving him a perceived "has-been" in his early twenties. He stayed in Fort Worth and watched other young contestants bask in the moments of Cliburn glory that had once been his. In 1995, he went to Warsaw to play in the Chopin International Piano Competition, where he was a popular favorite and was cited by the Polish critic Piotr Wirzbicki as a great interpreter of the composer's work. The judges felt otherwise. "The Chopin tradition has certain standards which must be upheld," pianist and jury chairman Jan Ekier said, in declining to award a first prize.
"Give me a great review or a horrible one," Sultanov shot back. "If people agree with you too much, that means there's not much personality. The Polish jurists, on the other hand, wanted waltzes played in a slightly lovesick way for all the grandmothers who probably danced them in Chopin's own time."
Later that fall, Sultanov probably suffered his first stroke, but it was of minor consequence and discovered only later. He continued to play until the dreadful day in February 2001 when he walked into his doctor's office, barely able to speak. Suffering from severe internal bleeding, he slipped into a coma, and when he awakened, a few days later, he had lost use of his left arm and leg.
In his last years, according to Gay, Sultanov "found a new, almost heroic role as a man determined to overcome physical disability. He swam and took up therapeutic horseback riding -- and, with his wife playing the cello or the left-hand part beside him, played piano with his right hand at nursing homes, YMCA facilities and group meetings of physically disabled people." In November 2004, Sultanov was made a U.S. citizen; he played "America the Beautiful" at the ceremony. It was his final public appearance.
"He was always one of a kind, always unique," his wife, Dace Sultanov, said last week. "He was always at the center of attention, always fiery, brilliant. People loved him or hated him, but more people loved him."
Whatever one thought of Sultanov's playing, there are many worse epitaphs than that.