The real value of Van Cliburn's art

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For starters, Cliburn's playing did indeed become strained in the last years before he began his “intermission” in 1978, the pianist long overdue for a rest. In a culture that thrives on bringing down the heroes it creates, Cliburn was ripe for the picking.

Moreover, Cliburn's exit from a spotlight that was hotter and brighter than any other American classical musician had experienced (or probably ever will) lasted nearly a decade. Thus he was written off as a has-been who never fulfilled his potential, even if he had attained an extremely high level of music-making in the first 20 years of his career.

In 1987, Cliburn did return to the stage. Not nearly as prolifically as before, and sometimes with the memory slips that strike older artists (no less than Vladimir Horowitz endured them too). But at his best Cliburn produced the same tonal sheen, the same exquisitely relaxed tempos, the same openness of spirit that audiences long had admired.

It was at this point that I got to know the pianist through researching and writing “Van Cliburn” (published in 1993). And I was startled to discover the gulf between the myth of the fallen star and the reality of the living, breathing artist.

Despite the heroic figure he cut onstage, towering over the instrument, and despite the international fame he had long since achieved, Cliburn in person proved gentle, soft-spoken, even a bit shy. A night owl, he spoke to me through the small hours with obvious awe of the musicians who were his heroes (Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter); of his lifelong obsession with Russian culture (hence the electric connection he made with audiences in Moscow); of contemporaries who formed an exalted generation of American virtuosos (among them singer Leontyne Price, violinist Michael Rabin and pianists John Browning and Leon Fleisher).

Yet if something flashed on the TV that might catch his fancy, he would interrupt his musical discourse to howl with laughter at an announcer's mishap or some other unintended bit of comedy. As the hours rolled by, he became more relaxed, more conversational, more expressive, refusing to consider himself the cultural hero that the world had made of him.

It wasn't Cliburn, in other words, who cast himself as a symbol of American pride and an answer to rising Soviet power — it was everyone else: hysterical audiences, rival superpowers, overheated media. Cliburn, in fact, had entered the Tchaikovsky competition reluctantly, encouraged by his mother and others. No one had seemed less likely to create a stir than the tall, slightly awkward young pianist from Kilgore, Texas.

When the Cold War faded and the press lost interest, Cliburn was essentially the same person as ever — a modest soul blessed with a wizardly technique and a palpable affinity for romantic expression, nothing more or less. Critics may have wished that he would play avant-garde works, but that wasn't Cliburn. Whether he had entered the Tchaikovsky contest or not, whether he had become a global phenomenon or not, he always was going to fulfill his vision of himself, not anyone else's.

Was Cliburn unhappy with himself? After all he had achieved at the piano, after all the careers he had nurtured, after all the history he had made, does that really seem likely?

It was others who were unhappy with him for failing to meet their expectations. And his fame made him a large target.

Cliburn, to his credit, simply went about being himself, playing on his own terms, leaving his recordings and competition as his legacy.

These are the real measure of this pianist, and it's time for a reassessment.
Twitter @howardreich

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