VAN CLIBURN by Howard Reich


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 The noted American pianist receives an overlong popular biography, stuffed with irritating detail on virtually every page. Cliburn (b. 1934 as Harvey Lavan, Jr.), a wonderful talent in his chosen repertoire, is by all accounts a genuinely attractive character as well. Unfortunately, by page one hundred, Reich (an arts critic for the Chicago Tribune), has crossed so far over the line from legitimate admiration into hagiography that he risks making the reader despise his subject. Reich has apparently read every newspaper and magazine article about Cliburn and has interviewed everyone who's ever known him. Seemingly few have had anything unflattering to say about the man, and their fond remembrances and musical tributes are quoted at interminable length. From Cliburn's high-school high jinks to his wonder years at Juilliard, his early concert successes, his fabled first prize in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war (an event that Reich sees as the beginning of the end of Communism 30-some years later), his subsequent international celebrity, his decade-long retirement from the concert stage, and his triumphant return--it's all here in suffocating detail. The names of judges and contestants at many competitions; the history of the teachers of his teachers. Where's the real person here? And if Cliburn finished second in a competition, the first prize winner and the competition are not-so-subtly trashed. Fortunately, the pianist is still alive, or the book would have to detail his resurrection. Even the annotated discography--probably the best thing here--is so uncritical (cf. John Ardoin's The Callas Legacy, 1977) that many music lovers will dissent from Reich's reverent appraisals of most every record. There's a legitimately interesting history here somewhere but, as written, it's strictly for the People crowd. Prospective Cliburnites are better advised to invest in the CD re-release of his legendary performances of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto and Rachmaninoff's second. (Illustrations--16 pp. color & b&w--not seen) (First printing of 35,000)

Pub Date: May 15th, 1993
ISBN: 0-8407-7681-0
Page count: 448pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1993


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