Few Insights Into Van Cliburn

VAN CLIBURN By Howard Reich, Thomas Nelson, 428 pp., $24.99.

IT has been 35 years since Van Cliburn was welcomed with a New York ticker-tape parade to celebrate his stunning victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition at the height of the cold war. In that time, Cliburn has both exceeded and disappointed the artistic expectations he raised.

Some of the key players in his career are gone - Khrushchev, Eisenhower, the impresario Sol Hurok, and the pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne. But enough of the people who made him a legend remain, certainly enough to research and write a critical biography of the artist.

Howard Reich's "Van Cliburn" is not that book. It is one of the worst pieces of music journalism to surface in a long time. It is a sycophantic exercise that is adulatory to an embarrassing degree. But it does point to what went wrong with Cliburn's career as one of this country's greatest pianists.

It must not be easy to write about Cliburn. Although known for his generosity, he is apparently an emotionally cautious and retiring man. Reich's book includes material from several interviews with the artist, but most of what he says might have come from his press agent. It reveals nothing about his emotional, spiritual, or private life.

The book treats important issues superficially: Who really won the propaganda war over Van Cliburn, the United States or the Soviet Union? How did it change the political role of the musician? How did the friction between public image and private reality affect the artist? And how has he been so successful maintaining the integrity of his public character? There are many rumors and insinuations about Van Cliburn to deal with, but Reich ignores them.

Although it made him a household name, the Tchaikovsky Competition also defined the Texas-born Cliburn as a particular kind of artist - romantic and passionate, but also youthful, open, and spontaneous. The famous picture of Cliburn greeting Khrush-chev went around the world, but it also froze the young pianist at a particular point of maturity This may have been a factor in Cliburn's decision to retire for a decade, beginning in the late '70s.

It's hard not to wonder if a truly honest biography might not be just the sort of public catharsis that Cliburn needs to return to a full concert schedule. In any case, those interested in his life will have to wait for a more thoroughgoing chronicle.

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