The real value of Van Cliburn's art

When it came to Van Cliburn, the remarkable pianist who died Wednesday at age 78 of bone cancer, I always thought the critics got it wrong.

To those who observed Cliburn's spectacular career from a comfortable distance, he was the gifted Texan who briefly became a cultural phenomenon — and a political symbol — only to burn out.


To me, a critic who interviewed him in depth 25 years ago while researching and writing a biography of the pianist, he was so much more.

No doubt Cliburn became a cultural icon by winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, amid the tensions of the Cold War. Thanks to his victory, American classical musicians no longer would need to feel inferior to their counterparts in the Old World. Cliburn's triumph flexed American cultural muscle at the very moment the United States was losing the race in space to the Soviets, who recently had launched their Sputnik rocket.

But after Cliburn's post-competition ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, sold-out concerts around the world and surprising rise to pop-culture status (Cliburn's red-headed likeness was spoofed in the 1960 Marilyn Monroe movie “Let's Make Love”), the press predictably turned on him.

"Of all the Americans of his generation, Cliburn was able to produce the most sensuous of sounds — rich, never percussive, a real piano sound that reminded old-timers of the great romantic pianists of the past," critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote in his book "The Great Pianists."

"(But) Cliburn retired in the 1970s. Perhaps he never learned how to handle his sudden fame. Perhaps he was torn two ways. On the one hand, he had such natural gifts that he could have played any repertoire, could have developed into a supreme artist.

"On the other, he was constantly asked to repeat his competition concertos — the Tchaikovsky B flat minor and the Rachmaninoff Third — and he acceded.


"Toward the end, his performances sounded perfunctory. Could he have felt a certain unhappiness with himself? Whatever the reason, one of the most brilliant talents in American pianism called it quits."

Schonberg's dismissal of Cliburn's career as a sensation that was too hot not to cool down, a meteor that tragically burned out, was all too readily accepted by some observers. And though Schonberg was correct that Cliburn played the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff too many times for his own good or anyone else's, those two pieces represented but a fraction of Cliburn's art and a sliver of his contribution.

First, though, let's acknowledge the majesty of his recording of the Tchaikovsky with Kiril Kondrashin and the RCA Symphony, and the sweeping lyricism of his reading of the Rachmaninoff with Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air. Most pianists yearn to create documents of this stature.

But beyond these two landmarks, Cliburn probed a far wider swath of repertoire than many realized.


His account of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, the subtlest and most elusive of the five Beethoven concerti (with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), conveyed both the intensity of youth and the clarity of thought one associates with elder masters. His reading of Beethoven's “Moonlight” Sonata gathered momentum not with speed or clatter, as lesser pianists prefer, but with gripping rhythmic accent and striking lucidity of texture.


Just as Cliburn flourished in the classicism of Beethoven, he brought profound insight to French Impressionism. Few pianists have captured the surges and swells of sound that Cliburn found in Debussy's "L'Isle joyeuse" ("Isle of Joy") or the warmth of touch and translucence of texture he expressed in the same composer's "Reflets dans l'eau" ("Reflections in the Water").

In the two decades before Cliburn began what he called a career "intermission," in 1978, he widely performed Beethoven's Third, Fourth and Fifth Concertos, Mozart's K. 503, both Liszt Concertos, both Brahms Concertos, Chopin's First, the Schumann Concerto and MacDowell's Second, among others. In addition, he recorded sonatas by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, major solo works of Liszt and Chopin and other repertory.

So Cliburn's alleged focus on two piano concertos was exaggerated. More important, his interpretations were deeply personal. In general, Cliburn took tempos far slower and emphasized the lyrical line more ardently than mid- to late-20th century tastes dictated, a testament to the depth of his musical convictions.

He clearly did not play to please the critics, either when he was in their favor or outside it. Instead, he played this music the way he felt it, through a Russian romantic sensibility. This was inspired first by his mother, pianist Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn (who studied with Arthur Friedheim, a student of Franz Liszt), and later, at Juilliard, by the great Kiev, Ukraine-born pianist Rosina Lhevinne.

The notion that Cliburn could have developed into a "supreme artist," as Schonberg termed it, but did not is plainly contradicted by a library of indelible recordings and a litany of historic performances. The speculation that Cliburn felt "unhappiness with himself," in Schonberg description, veered into the realm of fiction.

For not only did Cliburn move audiences around the world with the high romanticism and unapologetic idiosyncrasies of his playing, he helped launch generations of musicians with the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. Since 1962, the contest has trained a global spotlight on Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz, Vladimir Viardo, Alexander Toradze, Andre-Michel Schub, Ralph Votapek and Olga Kern, among others.

So why the disconnect? Why have Cliburn's considerable achievements and worldwide fame suffered such condescension?

For starters, Cliburn's playing did indeed become strained in the last years before he began his "intermission" in 1978, the pianist long overdue for a rest. In a culture that thrives on bringing down the heroes it creates, Cliburn was ripe for the picking.

Moreover, Cliburn's exit from a spotlight that was hotter and brighter than any other American classical musician had experienced (or probably ever will) lasted nearly a decade. Thus he was written off as a has-been who never fulfilled his potential, even if he had attained an extremely high level of music-making in the first 20 years of his career.

In 1987, Cliburn did return to the stage. Not nearly as prolifically as before, and sometimes with the memory slips that strike older artists (no less than Vladimir Horowitz endured them too). But at his best Cliburn produced the same tonal sheen, the same exquisitely relaxed tempos, the same openness of spirit that audiences long had admired.

It was at this point that I got to know the pianist through researching and writing "Van Cliburn" (published in 1993). And I was startled to discover the gulf between the myth of the fallen star and the reality of the living, breathing artist.

Despite the heroic figure he cut onstage, towering over the instrument, and despite the international fame he had long since achieved, Cliburn in person proved gentle, soft-spoken, even a bit shy. A night owl, he spoke to me through the small hours with obvious awe of the musicians who were his heroes (Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter); of his lifelong obsession with Russian culture (hence the electric connection he made with audiences in Moscow); of contemporaries who formed an exalted generation of American virtuosos (among them singer Leontyne Price, violinist Michael Rabin and pianists John Browning and Leon Fleisher).

Yet if something flashed on the TV that might catch his fancy, he would interrupt his musical discourse to howl with laughter at an announcer's mishap or some other unintended bit of comedy. As the hours rolled by, he became more relaxed, more conversational, more expressive, refusing to consider himself the cultural hero that the world had made of him.

It wasn't Cliburn, in other words, who cast himself as a symbol of American pride and an answer to rising Soviet power — it was everyone else: hysterical audiences, rival superpowers, overheated media. Cliburn, in fact, had entered the Tchaikovsky competition reluctantly, encouraged by his mother and others. No one had seemed less likely to create a stir than the tall, slightly awkward young pianist from Kilgore, Texas.

When the Cold War faded and the press lost interest, Cliburn was essentially the same person as ever — a modest soul blessed with a wizardly technique and a palpable affinity for romantic expression, nothing more or less. Critics may have wished that he would play avant-garde works, but that wasn't Cliburn. Whether he had entered the Tchaikovsky contest or not, whether he had become a global phenomenon or not, he always was going to fulfill his vision of himself, not anyone else's.

Was Cliburn unhappy with himself? After all he had achieved at the piano, after all the careers he had nurtured, after all the history he had made, does that really seem likely?

It was others who were unhappy with him for failing to meet their expectations. And his fame made him a large target.


Cliburn, to his credit, simply went about being himself, playing on his own terms, leaving his recordings and competition as his legacy.


These are the real measure of this pianist, and it's time for a reassessment.
Twitter @howardreich