Alexei Sultanov burst upon the international music scene at the age of 19 with his spectacular victory at the Eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June 1989. In a repertoire ranging from Chopin to Rachmaninov, the classical pianist went on to perform in cities throughout the world including in Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Moscow, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dallas.
Alexei was born on August 7, 1969 to Faizul Sultanov and Natalia Pogorelova in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan. At age three he began to study music with his cellist father and violinist mother, both instructors of music. When Alexei was only 6, he began piano lessons in Tashkent with Tamara Popovich, an amazing taskmaster who would, in the future, become one of Alexei's most trusted advisers.
Alexei made his formal debut at the age of seven. Shortly thereafter, Tamara Popovich arranged for him to have lessons at the prestigious Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory several times a year. Accompanied by one of his parents, he traveled by train from Uzbekistan for his lessons. It was an enormous expense and huge sacrifice, but one that paid off. Alexei was accepted and left his home in Tashkent in his early teens to study at the Moscow Central Music School in 1986. Alexei was a student of Lev Naumov at the Central Music school and again at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where he completed his musical studies.
While at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Alexei was chosen to complete in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. One of four Cliburn competitors from the Soviet Union in 1989, he was the youngest in the field of 38 pianists – and at 5 feet 2 inches, he also was the smallest. But once he performed his volcanic selections of Liszt, Prokofiev and Chopin, he quickly became known for his huge sound. His fingers flashed over the keys; the music thundered and whispered and groaned. When he played, he shut his eyes as if enraptured by the music. During his performance, a piano string snapped, but Alexei continued to play on. And, when the music ended, he bowed low to the audience, then took a backward step and pointed to the piano as if to share the spotlight with a fellow performer. Audiences raved about his originality and the jury's decision was unanimous, but critics were split in their response.
Immediately following his win at the Cliburn competition, Alexei was propelled into the international arena with an appearance on various American television programs including The Today Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the Late Night with David Letterman. Even the famous wanted to be close to him. The night after he appeared on David Letterman's show, Alexei was invited to play privately for the legendary Vladimir Horowitz. It was a memorable highlight of Alexei's life.
At a gathering in Horowitz's New York apartment, Alexei had the opportunity to speak with Horowitz in Russian and to play the piano with the legendary concert pianist. Alexei told him the story of meeting Dace Abele, the young lady who would later become his wife, at the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory back in 1986.
Dace, a Latvian cello student at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, was actually only a girl of 16 the afternoon she met Alexei. It was a rendezvous that was both fateful and romantic. Horowitz was playing at the Bolshoi Hall and a crowd of about 15 music students wanted to see the great man perform, but they had no tickets. They decided to climb to the roof of an adjoining building and jumped one by one to the sloping roof of the concert hall hoping to get inside. Once on the roof of the building, Dace's foot slipped and Alexei was there to catch her. She, of course, knew of this protege of the Conservatory; but he knew nothing of her. Whenever Alexei commented on their meeting he always told the same story, "I grabbed the girl. I looked at the girl. It was not bad -- so I saved her." It was a magical time for both of them. From that moment on, the two seemed destined to be together. On October 31, 1991, they were married in a civil ceremony in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Alexei began the dizzy 200-concert tour that began after the Cliburn and stretched over the next two years. There were music camps and performances, talk shows and dinner parties. Amiable and curious, Alexei lacked the social confidence to "work a room," but patrons were drawn to him and some whispered that he was that unique treasure -- a youthful, attractive artist who was both passionate and marketable.
Having complete his Cliburn-negotiated concert dates by 1993, Alexei struck out on his own with independent management. Like the majority of concert pianists, his career moved to an ever-changing tempo. During his career, he recorded eight CDs. In the U.S., he has a small but steady fan base, and his spine-tingling play has built a huge and avid following in Poland and Japan.
In October 1995 Alexei won another competition – the Frederick Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw Poland. Critics wrote that, "Sultanov played Chopin in the style of the old masters, a style, which the audience had not heard in the last half century." He also received "The Audience's Favorite Award".
Alexei appeared throughout the world to extraordinary public and critical acclaim. His orchestral appearances included engagements with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic, Japan Philharmonic, Royal Concerthebouw, Royal Philharmonic, Moscow Philharmonic, Warsaw Philharmonic, and the symphonies of various American Orchestras including Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Dallas, and Atlanta. He also had the honor of appearing in the major music capitals of the world including Berlin, New York (Carnegie Hall), Frankfurt, Milan (La Scala Theatre), Zurich, Washington D.C. (Kennedy center), Osaka, Seoul, Taipei, Athens, Helsinki, Hamburg (Musichalle), Nagoya, and the list goes on.
In February 2001, dizzy from the flu, Alexei fell and struck his head. A week later, he walked into a neurologist's office almost unable to speak. The cause was a subdural hematoma -- a tumor-like blood clot outside a blood vessel. Doctors were not sure why it formed, but they were certain that it is not the first time. Within hours of the diagnosis, Alexei was in surgery to stop internal bleeding that was putting pressure on his brain. He awoke with no discernible impairment. The strain put on tender blood vessels caused the massive stroke. Five years earlier, Alexei had suffered a small stroke that showed up on a CAT scan. Fortunately, the stroke did not disrupt his personal life or performance schedule. This stroke proved to be more severe. After the massive stroke Alexei was back in surgery, his life in the balance.
Surgeons at Osteopathic Medical Center of Texas in Fort Worth rushed to remove a blood clot on his brain, but, that night, another hemorrhage plunged him into an even more desperate situation. Again doctors scrambled to snatch him back from edge of death.
Slowly, with many therapies and occasional setbacks, Alexei began his journey toward recovery. As he progressed, he regained his ability to play the piano with his right hand, with Dace providing the part of the left hand. When Alexei was ready, they began to play publicly in nursing homes, hospitals, schools and churches. Those who heard him play were inspired by the courage of this brave man to rise above his limitations to give expression once again to his beloved music. "'NEVER GIVE UP", Alexei and Dace's mantra, gave hope to everyone who knew them.
Alexei’s stunning performances during the Van Cliburn competition were recorded by Teldec Classics in a two-disc album aptly named, The Winners, which was distributed worldwide. Alexei's competition performance was also featured in the PBS documentary Here to Make Music produced by Peter Rosen and aired throughout the United States. Since its original air date, the award-winning documentary which has since been syndicated to television networks around the globe.
On Teldec Classics label, Alexei’s recordings include the Tchaikovsky Concerto N° 1 and the Rachmaninoff Concerto N° 2, with Maxim Shostakovich conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. His solo recordings include the works by Chopin and the Piano Sonatas by Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. The two CDs from live performances in Tokyo, "Fantaisie Impromptu", 1997 and "Sultanov plays Chopin", 1999 were released by Arts Core Corporation.
Alexei Sultanov died on June 30, 2005 at the age 35. A special memorial service was held for him on July 6, 2005 at the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Among 150+ mourners in attendance were internationally renowned pianists Van Cliburn, Jose Feghali and Alexander Korsantia.
Throughout their 15 years together Dace Abele took her wedding vows to heart and was by Alexei's side - for better and for worse; through sickness and in health. Almost daily she supported him in all facets of his life, his career and his courageous attempts to recover from his illness.