Piano Concerto in A minor op.16 [29:27] Franz LISZT(1911-1886)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major S124 [19:19]
Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes S123 [15:30] Jean-Baptiste LULLY(1632-1687)
Gavotte en rondeau in D minor [2:21] Domenico SCARLATTI(1685-1757)
Sonata in D major K96 ‘La Chasse’ [2:30]
Georges Cziffra (piano)
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Georges Tzipine (Grieg), Andre
rec. Paris, France, 17 April 1959 (Grieg), Paris, France, 12 March,1959
(Liszt), Luxembourg, 20 January 1959 (Lully, Scarlatti). Mono. ADD.
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5079 [69:42]
They say that what goes around comes around. That’s how
I feel about the Grieg piano concerto when played by Cziffra.
It was one of the very first LPs I ever bought for myself at
age 18 with its distinctive cover of beautifully photographed
autumn leaves and a recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra
under André Vandernoot (HMV ALP 1678). I cherished the
record with its coupling of Liszt’s piano concerto no.2
until one day very foolishly I had my portable record player
sitting on my bed (why!?) and then absentmindedly threw a hot
water bottle onto it making the stylus jump and skitter across
the disc completely ruining it. I never found another copy until
53 years later, earlier this year in fact, when I found the
self-same LP in my local Oxfam charity shop paying three times
what I bought it for in 1959 and was bowled over by my luck.
Now I have the good fortune to be able to review another recording
of Cziffra playing the Grieg recorded live in 1959 with the
Orchestre National de l’ORTF under Georges Tzipine, along
with Liszt’s 1st piano concerto under Cluytens.
Above all it confirms my impression forged all those years ago
of Cziffra as a mighty powerhouse of a pianist whose expressive
playing did the greatest service to a composer any artist can
give. Reading the notes however, I find that amongst the controversy
that Cziffra always engendered is the suggestion that Cziffra
could be said to have stood Ashkenazy’s dictum (‘I
like to think that we are now more music’s servants than
her masters’) on its head. That surely cannot be said
of his recordings of Liszt, however; Marcel Dupré called
Cziffra a reincarnation of Liszt. How can any pianist overdo
the playing of Liszt when Liszt could equally well have been
described as Cziffra was by London critics as combining ‘the
precision of a metronome with the electrical discharge of a
Acclaimed in the west after his dramatic escape from Hungary
in 1956 as ‘greater than Horowitz’ Cziffra took
the world by storm with performances that were breathtaking
in their sheer power to impress. Audiences were, as the notes
so eloquently put it, taken ‘by the throat and sent ...
reeling into the night mesmerised by his aplomb’. As the
notes further point out Cziffra was such a contrast in an age
when pianists were often indistinguishable from one another.
So here was a pianist whose performances invited controversy
and divided his listeners into two camps, lovers and haters.
The first thing that struck me about this CD was the clarity
of sound considering the age of the recording. It’s hats
off to Peter Reynolds for a brilliant job of re-mastering the
tapes for their first ever release on CD. As I believe is often
the case with those performances one hears for the first time,
Cziffra’s interpretation of the Grieg became my aural
benchmark against which, knowingly or not, all others have been
judged down the years. In such cases, and with me there are
several, I find myself saying to myself when listening to other
recordings of this or that work “too fast” or “too
slow”. This means that as far as I’m concerned I’ve
never heard anyone play the Grieg piano concerto better. In
Cziffra’s electrifying performance every single note is
telling making for the most complete account I can ever imagine
hearing. Reading this you might think that Cziffra found it
more difficult to be tender when required, only really being
able to portray the tumultuous sounds, but that thought is dispelled
as soon as the second movement gets under way. Following a brilliant
opening movement in which the main theme is fairly hammered
to the musical mast, the Adagio is caressed and set as
a wonderfully crafted contrast to the two outer movements. The
final movement is eventually seized and driven on to its scintillating
conclusion, though not before the first half of it is quietly
restrained with the notes gently coaxed into being, setting
up the last five minutes to be driven almost manically along
to a conclusion that releases the audience’s eruption
of applause. The performance may well divide listeners but it
is certainly not one you are likely to feel ambivalent about.
That will surely be the case with anything Cziffra touched.
His Liszt is renowned for its fantastic shows of pianistic energy.
However, the first movement of Liszt’s 1st
concerto is as gently portrayed as anyone could want. The opening
of the second movement is also beautifully light and dreamy
though the darker levels are hinted at along the way leading
from Quasi adagio into Allegretto vivace - Allegro
animato and the kind of playing that elicited the statement
from Dupré that Cziffra was Liszt’s reincarnation.
The concerto is brought to a characteristically brilliant conclusion
that leaves one breathless in awe and admiration. This is again
underlined by the storm of applause from the audience. I watched
a short video of Cziffra playing Liszt’s Grand gallop
chromatique. There the full extent of his amazing abilities
are plain to see as his hands each appear to have more than
five fingers as they rush across the keys. His fingers seem
to have been extremely long.
The two concertos are followed by another great demonstration
of Lisztian showmanship: the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes
S123. It is often said that this or that soloist has a particular
music in their blood; that cannot be truer than in this case
since Cziffra’s heritage was from the Roma community.
His father was a player of that most emblematic instrument of
the Hungarian gypsy, the cimbalom. His account of this rich
and exciting work is extremely authentic as you would expect
with Cziffra’s fingers dancing up and down the keyboard
as the piano mimics the cimbalom most convincingly. You can
hear this particularly around 13 minutes in as the piece rushes
towards its stunning climax which gives way once more to the
audience’s enthusiastic reaction.
Apparently Cziffra loved the miniatures that he reserved for
his encores. The disc concludes with two delightful pieces,
a beautifully restrained account of Lully’s Gavotte
en rondeau in D minor and Scarlatti’s Sonata in
D major K96 ‘La Chasse’. These leave you wanting
more which is the perfect way for any artist to finish a concert.
As I stated at the beginning Cziffra divides opinion between
his admirers of which I am one and those who feel his playing
was mannered and far too idiosyncratic. There are unlikely to
be many who cannot make up their minds either way. In a century
the first half of which saw many unique pianists the like of
whom we shall surely not see again, certainly in such numbers,
Cziffra is right up there with the greatest. He was the man
who was characterised by one American critic as ‘a caveman
with earrings’ and will remain a controversial figure
whose recorded legacy is a treasure trove for those who have
yet to discover him. I cannot praise this disc too highly and
if you do not know Cziffra you are indeed lucky to have this
chance to hear him at the very peak of his powers.
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