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Did anyone really know Van Cliburn?

June 24, 2017 by norman lebrecht

19 comments.


Tim Page has written a penetrating review of two books about the enigmatic pianist.

Read here.


Comments (19)

  1. Mark Mortimer says:

    Well personally I didn’t know him. But what a pianist. His Schumann- Liszt Widmung brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.

  2. Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Absolutely transcending.

  3. Sixtus says:

    Note: the linked article is behind a paywall. This should have been mentioned.

  4. Esfir Ross says:

    Only communist party member Henrich Neuhaus can make such ideological remark: ” The most phenomenal event since October revolution” on Van Cliburn performance of Tchaikovsky #1 and Rach #3 at Moscow competition. Stuart Isacoff in his book promotion in Walnut Creek, CA claim that there’re no Russian piano school influence before he start study with Rosina Lhevinne. I heard Van Cliburn in his speech 2011 at competition that his mother studied with Russian pianist Arthur Friedheim. I rather read Nigel Cliff book-he’s a reputable writer.

    1. La Verita says:

      Indeed, Stuart Isacoff’s comment was shockingly ill-informed: Cliburn’s mother received a thorough grounding in Russian pianism from her studies with Friedheim, and so Cliburn cultivated his golden sound well before he began studying with Rosina Lhevinne.

    2. norman lebrecht says:

      I reviewed the Nigel Cliff book. He had a large amount of new material from good sources.

  5. Steinway Fanatic says:

    The Cliburn-Cold War story has been beaten to death for 60 years now – so it’s high time to give it a rest, and for writers to hitch their horse to other carts. Not to minimize his achievement, but a review of the list of 1958 contestants demonstrates that Cliburn could have won that Tchaikovsky competition with one hand tied behind his back – the level simply wasn’t very high, and one wonders what might have happened if Ashkenazy or Berman had showed up. No question, Cliburn was a great pianist, but because he allowed his unprecedented celebrity to go to his head, plus the fact that his commercial real estate investments earned him millions (a fact that remains undetected by Cliburn’s biographers), he became spoiled and he lost touch with reality, and his artistry deteriorated under the weight of his unhealthy narcissism. That is the tragedy of Van Cliburn.

    1. Ben says:

      Well, that “unhealthy narcissism” I heard when he played with the Chicago Symphony @ the Ravinia Festival about a decade ago didn’t fool either the musicians of the orchestra or the massive audience. Considering that the performance inspired the most overwhelming ovation of anyone in recent memory, you’d have to have fooled an awful lot of serious and informed music lovers.

      Sure, critics of VC can find all sorts of convoluted ways to rationalize that he was just a sentimental favorite of a bygone era. All I know is that musical magic happened that summer evening which has not been experienced there since. And I never was a VC fan! Reminds me of Szell’s comment after hearing G. Gould play – “That nuts’ a genius!”.

    2. Sue says:

      I didn’t know any of that but agree with the earlier comments about his Liszt-Schumann “Widmung” and, of course, Tchaikowsky #1 from the competition.

  6. 18mebrumaire says:

    There is a brilliant (and hilarious) review of Moscow Nights in the TLS 1 March 2017 by our old friend Richard Taruskin.

    1. Malcolm Kottler says:

      Yes indeed: read Taruskin! It is magnificent. And you can do it easily here, since it is NOT behind a paywall, unlike the review Norman has recommended to us.

      http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/van-cliburn-moscow-nights/

      Flesh and blood jukebox
      RICHARD TARUSKIN

  7. Cyril Blair says:

    Since we can’t read the portion of the article that presumably answers the question of the headline, please, tell us: DID anyone really know Van Cliburn?

  8. Nick says:

    A second question: what does it matter if anyone knew him or did not know him?

  9. Esfir Ross says:

    People that attend 1st Tchaikovsky competition and my piano teachers told of Jerome Lowental execellent performance of Beethoven op.109 at semi-final that gave him very long ovations, but he didn’t advance to finals. Rosina Lhevinne had higher hope for John Browning but he didn’t go to Moscow. The same time Byron Janis Rach #3 was considered unparallel, but in Moscow his recording was cancel -not to rival V. Cliburn’s.

  10. Peter Rosen says:

    With all the current interest in Van Cliburn ( 2 new books, the Taruskin and Page articles )
    I would refer readers to the documentary I made with Van ( he worked on this film directly with me, sitting for some long interviews, and with his mother, and sitting in my edit room in my office in NY for countless hours ).

    https://www.amazon.com/Van-Cliburn-Concert-Pianist/dp/B009PDO98M

    This is the true story.

  11. esfir ross says:

    Peter Rosen movies as poor as Stuart Isacoff writing. Peter bad mouthed films on Van Cliburn competition that made by other producer not him: “Just talking heads, I didn’t like it”. Film “They came to play”, “Virtuosity” had big success and win many festival prices. Peter Rosen direct you to buy on line his movie. Good place Slipped disk to sell.

  12. esfir ross says:

    There was another American pianist that reached finals and got 6th price- Daniel Pollack. He was student of Rosina Lhevinne, but didn’t fit the image of poster boy like Van Cliburn. He had uninterrupted career, still performing and the most reputable piano teacher in Los Angeles. So , there was strong competitors for VC.

    1. Steinway Fanatic says:

      Daniel Pollack is a fine player, but his concert career was modest at best, and fairly commensurate with his abilities. His playing never rose to Cliburn’s level.

    2. Bob Tonucci says:

      Lovely 1980 radio interview with Daniel Pollack:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uxqjksGJow


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