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


  1. What does it mean to be a great pianist? No pianist can perform the greatest performance of every single piece they play, because music is art and not science.

    If “greatest” means that the pianist played something so extraordinary that renowned pianists were moved to tears, few pianists ever attain this level.

    When Cliburn ended his performance of Tchaikovsky’s First in Moscow as his first piece in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, Vyacheslav Richter, who many pianists (including Americans and Europeans) considered to be the world’s “greatest” pianist, was crying in awe and delight.

    The Russians were astounded by Cliburn. He played with such fire and grace and virtuosity that the Russians knew they had witnessed the immortal. Cliburn was an instant legend.


    Comment by thinkerly — May 30, 2021 @ 8:56 pm

  2. I was a lifelong admirer of Van Cliburn, attended over a dozen of his concerts and sat onstage with 99 others during a recital he gave at Bass Hall in Fort Worth. Over the years I presented Van with bouquets of red roses (red roses and peonies were his favorite flowers). In Nashville, I threw roses on stage from front row a la Moscow, which he really enjoyed. The audience did as well! I have a beautifully framed handwritten note on my program from his performance of the MacDowell in Huntsville, AL Heard him play that gem twice, the Tchaikovsky 1, Liszt 1, Grieg, Rach 2, and many others. Never heard him play my favorite, the Rach 3 (it was his favorite too!). I’ve listened to his recording of it a thousand times or more. No one – NO ONE – played it more beautifully. I flew from Atlanta to MA to hear him play the Grieg at Tanglewood. His playing of the 2nd movement was transcendent. When I told him years ago that his playing transported me, his eyes filled with tears and he pulled me towards him in a bear hug. He spoke to me for nearly a half hour. I told him how I fell in love with his playing at the age of 7, when my mother played his Tchaikovsky recording endlessly, that his playing “spoke” to me like no other. I told him of my love for Russian Romanticism and how I had studied with The Royal Ballet as a young girl and then with a Russian who told me, “YOU have Russian soul! DAH!” That made him toss his head back and roar with laughter! When we said our goodbyes, he put his right hand over his heart and bowed his head – which is what a male danseur does to the prima ballerina at the end of a performance. What a thoughtful and kind gesture! I returned his gesture with a deep reverence in a show of my profound respect. I told him that this had been “one of the greatest, most memorable, moments of my life”, and he kissed my hand. My feet were not touching ground as I walked away. I was shaken to the core. I had been in the presence of absolute genius. The next evening Van played “Widmung” as his final encore (I had told him it was my very favorite from his Encores album). From then on, every time he spotted me front row – he played “Widmung” as his last encore..and as he walked offstage raised his palm toward me and mouthed “For you…” At Tanglewood after he had played the Grieg, I stood in line to meet him backstage, then saw his partner Tommy waving me over to let me in. He and Van were so warm and kind and spoke to me about their beloved Maltese, Babychops, who they had to leave at home due to illness. She had been Van’s mother’s dog and they both clearly loved the little dog and were worried about her. I will never forget Van’s brilliant performances, but also how profound was his humanity, his kindness, generosity, humor – and our shared passion for Russian Romanticism! He was one of the Truly Great Pianists of the century and a beautiful, BEAUTIFUL human being.


    Comment by Denise — June 5, 2019 @ 5:08 pm

  3. I too had the pleasure of meeting him and shaking his hand after his Hollywood Bowl performance in 1962 (if I remember the date correctly). His hands were awesomely huge. Unbelievably huge. I will never forget that moment in my life. He is truly one of the greatest pianists of his era.


    Comment by Robert Fazakerly — February 27, 2018 @ 7:56 pm

  4. I think like any pianist, he had great concerts and mediocre concerts. He had pieces that were “right up his alley” that no one else performed better, along with repertoire that did not suite him well. That said, he had a very warm and inviting tone, an impressive technique, and musicianship that has rarely been heard in any other pianist.


    Comment by Jim Hendricks — February 26, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

  5. It’s been 6 years since this thread was active, but I feel like I need to comment. I met Van on several occasions, and in each of those occasions he was performing a role which may not have been his choice in life, but one which he accepted with grace and dignity, perhaps with enthusiasm, for his personality was congenial. That role was a facilitator, the one in the room who everyone looked up to without question. He was a natural leader, without seeming to want to be. Extremely intelligent, kind, and considerate, he was the consummate Boy Scout as pianist.

    When you’re assessing his value as a pianist, you cannot ignore this, even though it seems like you could and should. He won the Tchaikovsky because he was the best pianist in the competition. Period. When you hear the recordings of that, you know it was not a political decision, but one of truth. He was the best. He made many recordings later which are definitive. Rubinstein admired him, and of course it was mutual. But other pianists carried only the mantle of greatness as pianists. Van Cliburn carried nations estranged by the Cold War on his shoulders. In times when there seemed to be no hope, you know that the leaders of the USSR were humanizing the USA by way of their love of Van Cliburn. He was often called upon to meet with Soviet leaders both in the Washington, D.C. and in Moscow. His role in those meetings was again something like that of facilitator. You could argue viciously with your colleague across the border, but when Van spoke, you smiled and demurred to his greatness. Both sides respected this.

    Psychiatrists like Jung, who deal in archetypes, would say that Cliburn carried their “king energy.” He was king to all around him. He couldn’t tell them what to do, but he didn’t have to. When they were on the verge of dehumanizing an entire nation of people through threat of nuclear attack, Van Cliburn softened their hearts again and made them realize that we all have to find a way to co-exist, if not get along. This is a lot to ask of one man. His adulation went so much deeper than his greatness as a pianist. He didn’t ask for this, but was thrust into it, and it changed everything.

    Before this other side of Van Cliburn had altered him, he made a number of recordings that are still stupendous even today. Had he been allowed to continue in this vein, and had all his rich and powerful friends and fans depended only on his pianism to enhance their lives, it’s likely that he would have gone on to record dozens more definitive recordings in a variety of styles. But the pressures put on Van were not those of piano performer, but some singular bridge between two world powers and all the pomp and circumstance that went with that.

    You could include the fact that the Romantic era had crashed to a close in the 1960s, when the Academy washed its hands of romanticism and embraced the loony sounds of modernism, which kept promising vainly to draw an audience as composers and listeners found some middle ground. That never really happened on a broad scale like romanticism, classicism, or baroque, but a generation of performers were told that playing near the heart was grotesquely bourgeois, and a bad thing. That was Cliburn’s generation. Face it, you can’t picture Cliburn playing Webern’s “Variations,” or Schöneberg’s “Five Little Pieces,” or any of the modernist fare that had started driving away audiences in droves by the mid-1960s.

    I hope you can see by this that there are no direct lines of comparison between Cliburn and, say, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, and others of that era. Even Martha Argerich slipped in later, when people tired of choking on modernism longed for some of the old masters again, and Martha played her share of modernist pieces to satisfy the Academic Robes of cultural decision-making.

    Cliburn was truly one-of-a-kind, and almost surely will remain the only one of his kind unless someday two superpowers once again need a romantic pianist to tame their insane nightmares of mutual global annihilation. The pianist who could do that is already there: Khatia Buniatishvilli. But it’s not likely that she will be thrust into that position. She could handle it, though. She understand a lot about archetypes and carrying or rejecting people’s projections.

    Cliburn was in some ways the world’s greatest pianist. But the measure of his greatness is a scale that has never before existed and never will exist again. Let’s lay it to rest with one thought: at Moscow, in 1958, Cliburn was the world’s greatest pianist. His career was unusually short, just as Rubinstein’s career was unusually long. The reasons are for historians, not pianist-measurers, to ponder.


    Comment by Shooshie R — February 13, 2017 @ 1:45 am

  6. Van was one of a kind, who happened to grace the world stage at the height of the Cold War in the 1950’s. My family, good friends with Van from 1966-1977 (through my Dad- a Julliard trained baritone, who had studied with many of Van’s teachers in NY) was lucky enough to hear Van live in dozens of solo and concerto performances during those years. He was a master of the Russian virtuoso tradition- and most comfortable in this idiom. When he stepped out of his “comfort zone” and performed Barber’s Op. 26 Sonata- it was a revelation. I’ll never forget the night in the 1970’s- just prior to his RCA recording of the Barber in NY City on the next week- he played the fugue of the Barber for a group of 12 of us- on a Yamaha Upright Piano (after a concert in which he played- just a few hours before- Liszt E Flat and the Grieg Concertos)
    I’ll never forget that performance at 3 AM (Van was a night owl)- or as Van called it “dry run”…I can still see his huge hands playing the Barber that night.
    He was one of a kind, in the right place at the right time in history- perhaps never to be encountered again in our lifetimes.


    Comment by Robin Hope — August 14, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

  7. I agree with the comment by John Uscian regarding Cliburn’s Beethoven concerto recordings. But I would go John one up. I think all of the concerto recordings Cliburn made with Fritz Reiner and Chicago are the best recorded performances of those concertos, bar none. He is famous for Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff but to overlook his Beethoven and Brahms is to miss some truly great work. I can understand someone tiring of the incessant practice and travel that concert life poses to a great pianist and I do not hold that against him. For ten or twelve years he was absolutely incomparable in the romantic piano repertoire. Go listen to his recording of the Chopin E minor Concerto, second movement, for the most beautiful sounds to come out of a piano. Maybe someday he will be recognized as the truly great pianist he was.

    Robert Fazakerly


    Comment by Robert Fazakerly — July 11, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

    • I think that Van Cliburn’s Brahms 2nd Concerto with Reiner is the best I have heard of that work. It is notable that Vladimir Ashkenazy has insisted that the best recording ever made of the Rachmaninoff 3rd is Van Cliburn with Kondrashin.


      Comment by John Uscian — May 16, 2021 @ 7:57 pm

  8. I have listened to many different recordings of the Beethoven 4th Concerto (and even played the first movement of this work). I have thus heard many fine and varied interpretations of this work, including those by Rubinstein, Serkin, Pollini, and Radu Lupu. But I believe the recording that Van Cliburn made of the Beethoven 4th concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony is far and away the most poetic, most beautiful interpretation of this work. Indeed, I do not understand why Cliburn’s recording of the Beethoven 5th concerto with Reiner and the CSO isn’t more appreciated, for like the 4th concerto interpretation, this is also an excellent performance, with Cliburn’s big tone, constant emphasis of melody, capacity to artistically shape phrases, and capacity to blend well with the orchestra all come together. He was one of the greats but was honest enough with himself to know when he had had enough. He then went on to serve music through further promoting his competition, which had been well established by the time of his retirement from the concert stage in the late 1970s.


    Comment by John Uscian — May 9, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

  9. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that a very talented young man had a predilection and love for the romantic and classical repertoires –
    and that this is why Van became rightfully famous.
    But he may have gotten tired of the concert life, and went into a different direction in his life, and in this process some of his virtuosity and aplomb slackened. This is not the first time that similar things happened to other great pianists, and musicians generally. the Canadian genius comes to mind.
    But all along he has contributed to the spread of the fine music through all the USA more than any other USA pianist.


    Comment by kosta — May 25, 2011 @ 5:28 am

  10. Whether he’s the best or the greatest, Americans should be thankful that he won the Grand Prize for the 1st Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. It was during the Cold War period; therefore, his winning that competition in its first year was really something great, meaning he’s really indisputably the greatest among that batch. At that time, of course, Russia would have preferred a Russian to be the very first winner of that very prestigious competition. Learn to just appreciate it, if you can’t learn how to play the Concerto No. 1 of Tchaikovsky 🙂


    Comment by Narra — April 19, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    • Hi Nara,
      Thank you for reading and replying so thoughtfully.
      He was indeed a great act in history and politics, but also in music.
      He was among the generation that showed American-trained classical musicians could compete with the best of Europe. Of course, the conductor Leonard Bernstein was the most prominent example. But so were pianists like Cliburn, John Browning, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher.
      But you should also know that Cliburn owes his victory to a Russian or two: The story is that the great piano virtuoso Sviatoslav Ricjter threw all his jury votes to Cliburn instead of dividing them up or giving them a fellow Soviet; and that when Nikita Krushchev was told Cliburn had won and asked if they should give him the medal, he asked “Is he the best?” and when he was told yes, then he answered, “Then he should get the gold medal.”
      Interesting times and interesting figures, no?
      Thanks again,


      Comment by welltemperedear — April 19, 2011 @ 8:17 am

  11. One piece in which I think Cliburn has done the best job of any I’ve heard is Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata. The recording was coupled with Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #6 — the first in his “War Sonata” trilogy — and that’s very appropriate, because for me Barber’s Sonata is also about WW II experience. Barber worked with Horowitz, who premiered it in 1949 or 1950. Although I don’t dislike the Horowitz rendition, Cliburn I think catches the “poetry” of the Sonata much better — and that’s critical to this piece, much more than the virtuosic element, which Horowitz (of course) accomplished in spades.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — April 17, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    • Hi Tim,
      I haven;t heard Cliburn’s performance of the Barber Sonata, though I should, So wIll seek it out. Thank you for the tip, especially for the Barber Centennial.


      Comment by welltemperedear — April 17, 2011 @ 9:24 am

  12. Jacob,
    I never doubted Van was one of the greats. The Tchaikovsky 1/Rach 2 CD is an example I use as a starter-kit for people that have somehow never heard any piano concertos and want to hear how exciting they are. I also really liked his recordings of the Liszt Concertos #1 and 2 and Grieg’s Concerto.

    The “My Favorite Rachmaninov” CD is another amazing collection. I am in awe every time I hear that live recording of the 2nd Sonata; I know if I’d heard that at a competition, I would have declared him the winner myself!


    Comment by Chris McGovern — April 17, 2011 @ 6:15 am

    • Hi Chris,
      You name good choices, all. And he did enough that he can indeed justify the title of a great pianist, though I think he started declining before he retired. The young and early stuff is the best.
      Do check out the MacDowell No. 2, if you can find it.
      His Rachmaninoff sonata was indeed something, and apparently his Rachmaninoff in general was much of what endeared him to the Russians and Soviets. Both of them had a fondness for sweeping melodic lines and poignant harmonies as well as virtuosity.
      Thanks for reading and replying with such specifics. I appreciate it and so will other readers.
      I remember reading a biography by the radio producer, composer and writer Abram Chasins that has a photo of Cliburn visiting Rachmaninoff’s grave in New York State.


      Comment by welltemperedear — April 17, 2011 @ 9:22 am

      • They do indeed have that RCA CD of him playing the MacDowell Concerto on Amazon (Guess I better snatch it while it’s still available used for 11.99), and I’d love to hear it.
        I’ll check out the book too!

        BTW, his Brahms is brilliant as well!


        Comment by Chris McGovern — April 17, 2011 @ 9:47 am

      • Chris,
        Thanks for the tip.
        Good luck.
        Hope you enjoy it.
        I find the third movement of the MacDowell, especially brilliant and engaging!


        Comment by welltemperedear — April 18, 2011 @ 9:25 am

  13. I saw Van Cliburn play at the Stock Pavilion around 1970. My parents had the album of his performance of Tchaikovsky, which I had listened to many times. I remember that he was late because he thought the cab driver had taken him to the wrong place (a stock pavilion?). So the driver took him to the Coliseum, but found out he really was supposed to play in the Stock Pavilion and took him back.

    Anyway, his performance was amazing. And afterward I went and shook his hand, His hand was huge and he was very nice. I don’t think I washed my hand for several days afterward, it was such a thrill.


    Comment by Genie Ogden — April 17, 2011 @ 1:24 am

    • Hi Genie,
      I was there then, and saw and heard him too.
      He played the Brahms Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat Major with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under Roland Johnson.
      It was quite the performance.
      He almost slipped on the ice going out and getting in a car.
      And he was late for precisely the reason you gave.
      He did indeed have huge hands, and he tells the story about how his high school basketball coach tried to recruit him because he was so tall with such big hands.
      Thanks for reading and replying, and bringing back some find memories.


      Comment by welltemperedear — April 17, 2011 @ 9:16 am

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