In the tense semifinals of the sixth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, Norman Krieger, 24, was stricken with stomach pains during a Chopin prelude and could not finish the piece. While the audience buzzed, the woolly-haired pianist for whom the event is named hurried to the aid of the exhausted L.A. contestant and offered him a chance to finish his program later. "I always feel empathy," Van Cliburn explained, recalling his competitive days a quarter of a century ago. "I feel like I'm up there playing with them."

At 46, Cliburn remembers the moments of severe stage fright he suffered as a young pianist seeking to make a name. When he hit the headlines in 1958, after taking the top award at Moscow's first Tchaikovsky Competition, he was only 23—five years younger than André-Michel Schub, the polished Paris-born New Yorker who won last week in Fort Worth. It was no surprise that Schub emerged from an international field of 128 to take the Cliburn's gold medal and the $12,000 cash prize, recording contract and two-year concert tour that go with it. He had already won two major U.S. competitions: the Naumburg Award in 1974 and the Avery Fisher Prize in 1977. In a way, the wonder at the Texas event was Van Cliburn himself: Why has he not played publicly or cut a record since 1978?

Rumors had it that his talent and health were spent. But at Fort Worth, the 6'4" virtuoso insisted he was as robust as Beethoven's Fifth. "Do I look sick?" he asked. "I don't have cancer, and I'm not having an artistic crisis. I'm just having a good time."

So he is. After two grueling decades playing up to 100 performances (at $15,000 a pop) annually, bachelor Cliburn is on a sybaritic sabbatical. The wealth he amassed over the years from recordings and concerts has enabled the middle-level oil company official's son to buy homes in his native Shreve-port, La. and Tucson, as well as rent an eight-room hotel suite in Manhattan, where he spends most of his time. Says he: "It is a thrill simply to sit and read [often Shelley, Byron and other Romantic poets], or go to another person's performance. I could never do these things when I was playing concerts."

Cliburn has become a night owl who rises in the late afternoon and rarely retires before 5 a.m. In Manhattan he'll invite a squad of old chums—perhaps including TV's Mr. (Fred) Rogers and his wife, Joanne—to dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, move the party to the Plaza for waltzing and a digestif, then return home for late-night movies on the tube.

Though Cliburn says he's enjoying a "second childhood," he never really had a first one: He started plinking on the piano at age 3, and was steered along in his career by his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, a frustrated concert pianist. He's been performing so long, he explains, that "I needed a vacation." So did his repertoire, say some critics, who complain that he has been overly dependent on showy, romantic works, like those that won him his medal in Moscow—Tchaikovsky's First Concerto and Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto. Nonetheless, Cliburn says, "That's what's close to my heart. That's what my audiences want to hear."

Ever since the Tchaikovsky Competition—which she did not attend—Rildia Bee, now 84, has been her son's closest companion (his father died in 1974). She was his piano teacher until, at 17, he won a scholarship to New York's Juilliard School.

For all of Cliburn's post-Moscow fame, he has always been notably open and untemperamental. He happily obliges autograph seekers and habitually grabs checks when he takes pals to expensive restaurants. He is most fond of those friends who backed him before he became famous ("the acid test," he says). In Fort Worth, he not only hosted an outdoor picnic for the 39 competitors who made it past the early rounds, but also gave them each a $100 bill.

Cliburn busies himself nowadays by watching his investments, composing sonatas, expanding his repertoire to include Mozart and Schubert, and exchanging letters with old friends from the Tchaikovsky Competition. He insists he'll return to the concert stage one day, but warns, "There won't be a new Cliburn—I don't see anything wrong with the old one." Meanwhile, he says with a chuckle, "I guess I'll keep this sabbatical up as long as the canned goods hold out."