The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How good was pianist Van Cliburn?

April 17, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

A while ago, two different professors of piano at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music expressed their admiration for the playing of pianist Van Cliburn.

I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised, but I guess I was.

For many years now, Cliburn has mostly been dismissed by critics and professionals, who just don’t consider him to be among the true keyboard greats.

Then I recently watched Cliburn, who gave up active concertizing three decades ago, receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama (below).

Obama cited Cliburn’s famous Cold War victory when he unexpectedly won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958, when he received the gold medal from composer Dmitri Shostakovich (below).

Of course, Cliburn made history in other ways. He was also the first artist to sell more than a million copies of a classical recording (the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1) and the first artist to get a $10,000 concert fee.

But he burned out from overexposure and got tired of concertizing apparently, and retired early. He also made a fortune in Texas real estate, and these days he hosts the international competition for professionals and amateurs he established in Texas.

As far as I know, he doesn’t teach; he practices in the middle of the night; and he occasionally performs for small audiences.

I know firsthand of his charisma, because I have seen him play live several times, both solo and with an orchestra.

But that kind of information doesn’t answer the question of his music-making.

So I thought I would ask you, my readers: How good was Van Cliburn really?

For my own part, I find the record mixed.

In certain cases I don’t think anyway has ever bettered Cliburn’s playing,

Specifically, I still find his Tchaikovsky First and Rachmaninoff Third concertos more thrilling than any others. And no one has ever played Edward McDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor better than Cliburn.

On the other hand, I found his Brahms No. 2, his Schumann, his Prokofiev 3, his Beethoven “Emperor” and so many other standard works in the piano concerto repertoire relatively plodding, uninspired and completely overwhelmed by versions by Rudolf Serkin, Maurizio Pollini, Clifford Curzon, Arthur Rubinstein and many others.

Somewhere in between came his various solo CDs – the “My Favorite” formula collection — that covered solo works by Chopin, Brahms and Debussy among others.

Some of the pieces on those recordings (Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3) were terrific; others left me unmoved and seemed adequate at best.

And now, new recordings, Cds and DVDs, have been uncovered that document early tours of Russia with a lot of different rrepertoire.

At his best, Cliburn carried on the great Russian piano tradition imparted by his teacher Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard. He possessed speed and power, elegance and passion, and great tone. Every note came from somewhere and went to somewhere.

At his worst, Cliburn seemed like a great talent who ended up going through the motions, more or less. I once heard him say backstage that he wished he had been born a singer instead of a pianist. I think that disappointment sometimes showed in his playing.

What do you think?

How good was Cliburn in his prime?

What is your favorite Cliburn performance or album?

What is your least favorite recording?

Posted in Classical music

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