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. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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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