Winning first prize at the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition, Alexei Sultanov enjoyed a meteoric rise of epic proportions, with a major recording contract, Carnegie Hall recital, American and European tours, and TV appearances with Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and other notables. But Sultanov's star soon fell to Earth as critics would often characterize his bold style in unflattering terms, finding his interpretive manner feral and superficial, and his herculean fortes ostentatious: he broke a string during a performance of the Liszt First Mephisto Waltz at the Cliburn Competition. But the youthful pianist's health soon proved a more formidable opponent than any critic's pen, as a series of strokes sabotaged his career, eventually leaving him paralyzed on his left side after 2001. Though he died at 35, Sultanov left a memorable though controversial legacy. His Prokofiev, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin could rivet the listener, while his Beethoven and Mozart might have been less consistently engaging. His recordings, mostly available from Warner Classics, document the enormous talent of this imaginative performer, a pianist unafraid to take interpretive chances.
Alexei Sultanov was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on August 7, 1969. From age three he studied music with his father, a cellist, and his mother, a violinist. After piano lessons with Tamara Popovich in Tashkent, he enrolled at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow in his early teens.
At 19 Sultanov won the Fort Worth-based Cliburn Competition and immediately generated controversy: at least two jury members, famed pianists György Sándor and John Lill, doubted he was artistically mature, and several major critics expressed similar concerns following his debut recitals.
Nevertheless, Sultanov managed to stay in the limelight with his television appearances, concert tours, and recordings. When the Cliburn-sponsored tours ended in 1993, Sultanov, living in Fort Worth with his cellist-wife Dace Abele, took control of his now waning career.
In 1995 he captured second prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, but refused to accept it, because no first prize was awarded. Several months later he suffered a stroke, which caused no debilitating effects. In 2001 a head injury from a fall led to a second and far more serious stroke. Following lengthy therapy Sultanov was able to appear in small local recitals, playing with his right hand only while his wife accompanied on the cello or played the left-hand piano part. Sultanov would never regain use of his left hand. He died on June 30, 2005.