Did anyone really know Van Cliburn?

Did anyone really know Van Cliburn?


norman lebrecht

June 24, 2017

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

Read here.


  • 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.

    • Denise says:

      Van Cliburn was my favorite concert pianist from the first time I heard him play. The beautiful golden tone, the exquisite phrasing moved me to tears. No one played the Rach 3 as beautifully as Van. Over the years, I sat front row for many of his concert performances and sat in an on-stage seat for his recital at the Bass Hall opening. No one commanded a stage like Van Cliburn. Many times I witnessed audience members weeping or looking shell-shocked after one of his performances. He played like an angel. “Widmung” was my favorite Cliburn encore and he always played it as his last encore when he spotted me in front row. In Nashville, after he played “Widmung”, he raised his hand toward me as he walked off stage and mouthed the words “for you.” I would throw roses on stage as they did in Moscow and he loved that. Van was a very kind, warm, humble man and very easy to talk to…but whenever I turned to leave, my knees would be shaking. As down to earth and kind as Van was, his genius was palpable. I am looking at a note he wrote me after his May 25, 1999 performance of the MacDowell Concerto. I will always cherish it.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Absolutely transcending.

    • Denise says:

      I once told Van that I could listen to a concerto, like the Grieg or the Rach 3 played by various world class concert pianists – and they didn’t move me. But then I would listen to the same piece played by him and I would be transcended. When I told Van that, his blue eyes instantly filled with tears and he threw his arms around me in a bear hug. “Oh, you’re so kind. Really?” There was an otherworldly, almost holy, beauty to Van’s playing. It would take you into the clouds, it was indeed transcendent. I once asked him, “Van, when you close your eyes while you are on stage playing…WHERE do you go? He said, “I DON’T know…Then he fluttered his fingers in the air and said…I just “go into the ETHER!”

  • Sixtus says:

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

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • Denise says:

        Van often said his mother was a better pianist than he, and that she had been Friedheim’s favorite pupil at the time.

    • norman lebrecht says:

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

  • 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.

    • 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!”.

    • 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.

    • Denise says:

      Mr. Cliburn’s real estate ventures certainly were mentioned in at least one of his biographies and in various articles. He told Abram Chasins that, in his early days, Red Skelton had loaned him the remaining money he needed for an investment opportunity.

      “Unhealthy narcissism”?! Never ONCE in all my conversations with him over 40 years did I ever detect the slightest trace of narcissism. In fact, just the opposite. Van was the warmest, kindest, unassuming, most humble artist I ever met. You obviously did not know him.

  • 18mebrumaire says:

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

  • 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?

  • Nick says:

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

  • 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.

    • Denise says:

      Rosina Lhevinne stated that, of all her students, only Van Cliburn could compete and win in Moscow. She described his playing and John Browning’s in terms of colors. She said Browning’s playing was technically perfect, intellectual but lacking fire…it was “blue.” Cliburn’s playing was also technically perfect, but he played with a fire-like brilliance, with the passion of the old Russian Masters (her husband Joseff had been one of them). She said Cliburn’s playing was like the color “red.” Mrs. Levine was right…”Red” won and the rest is history. My piano teacher in L.A. had been a child prodigy herself and told me then (early 60’s) that “a Van Cliburn may come around once, maybe twice, every hundred years.” She could go on for days talking about his beautiful tone, his brilliant technique and exquisite phrasing. I saw him perform the Liszt and Grieg concertos back-to-back in ’72 and people’s jaws were on the floor, including mine. That was the most brilliant playing I ever heard in my entire life.

  • 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 ).


    This is the true story.

    • Denise says:

      Mr. Rosen, I have a copy of it and have loaned it to several friends. It is an excellent documentary about an extraordinary pianist and musical genius. I can’t believe he’s gone and that I will never experience the joy of hearing another Van Cliburn concert. There was no one like him and there never will be. RIP Van.

  • 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.

  • 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.