GEORGES CZIFFRA IN CONCERT
Georges Cziffra (pn); Georges Tzipine, cond;
André Cluytens, cond;
O Natl de l’ORTF
ICA CLASSICS 5079, mono (69:42) Live: Luxembourg, 1/20/1959; Paris, 3/12/1959
Piano Concerto in a.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E♭. Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes.
Gavotte en Rondo in d.
Sonata in D,
The liner note for this disc, written by Bryce Morrison, clearly draws a line in the sand and dares the listener to cross it. His very first sentence, “Few pianists have aroused greater controversy than Georges Cziffra,” is followed by further challenges. “He took his audience by the throat and sent them reeling into the night mesmerized by his aplomb,” he writes, “an achievement and approach that in an increasingly puritanical age, where one pianist is often undistinguishable from another, prompted perplexity followed by frowns…Most of Cziffra’s critics were the more mundane college professors, examiners and the members of what today is commonly referred to as the jury mafia of the competition circuit, and he saw them as little more than ‘carrion beetles of the mind.’”
Indeed. I clearly recall, while growing up in the late 1950s and into the ’60s, just a few years before I really immersed myself in classical music, hearing—and hearing of—such pianists as Horowitz, Rubinstein, Van Cliburn, Entremont, Graffman, Gould, Arrau, and Gilels, but not Cziffra. Even after having read several years’ issues of
(not every month, I admit, but often enough), still nothing on Cziffra. When in college in 1968 I discovered other pianists, either by word of mouth from friends, from seeing their discs in the record stores or the university bookstore, or from my professors, names like Badura-Skoda, Brendel, Curzon, Hungerford, Masselos, Watts, Ogdon, Moiseiwitsch, Cortot, Petri, and Richter—but still no Cziffra. I was, in fact, unaware of his existence until the early 2000s when watching the video
The Art of Piano.
There onscreen was my nemesis, the antichrist of the piano, Vlad “The Impaler” Horowitz, gleefully pounding his way through a grotesque set of
variations. I got up to fast-forward the tape when suddenly onscreen came a handsome, smiling man in his early-40s playing something called the
Grand Galop Chromatique
of Liszt. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This man’s fingers were crawling across the keyboard like two spiders on uppers, producing a flurry of notes so quickly that those fingers became a blur on my screen, yet not missing a single note. And he was phrasing the music, something Horowitz could rarely be accused of doing. Who the hell was
I soon found out, and ever since have been a Cziffra fan. In these same liner notes, Morrison mentions that in his first years of success in Paris, the critics said he was “greater than Horowitz.” I completely agree, but you can’t say I formed that opinion hastily or with the thought of comparison in my mind. I disliked Horowitz heartily from the first time I heard him distorting the music in a two-LP set on RCA’s Soria Series (I forget the title, but it had a blue cover with a painting on it from the pianist’s own collection). If you feel that I jumped on Cziffra’s bandwagon as a result of jumping off Horowitz’s, then you are wrong. But let’s face it, when you think of “super-virtuoso” pianists, only four names come to mind: Horowitz, Richter, Argerich, and Cziffra, and for me Cziffra is even greater than Richter, who was greater than the other two.
Here we have him in all his glory, playing “live” in the late 1950s in Paris. There are two other recordings of the Grieg concerto available by him, one with André Vandernoort and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Urania 356) and another with his son conducting the Budapest Symphony Orchestra in 1969 (EMI Classics Encore 74732). I’ve heard the latter, and it’s good, no question about it, but both Cziffra and conductor Tzipine are here operating at white heat. Again, to paraphrase Morrison, this doesn’t mean that Cziffra is a butcher of the music, far from it. The delicacy of his lyricism in the second movement (it is at moments like these that you really appreciate how much more deeply felt and musical his performances are than Horowitz’s) is extraordinarily restrained, but then to hear the way he explodes in the last movement has the effect of a firecracker. The same is also true of the Liszt Concerto No. 1. I’ve tracked down three other Cziffra versions of this piece, one from 1958 conducted by Fulvio Vernizzi (Idi 6616), Pierre Derveux and the Paris Symphony on the same Urania disc mentioned above, and yes, the famous EMI recording (02324) conducted by his son. Again, I’ve heard only the latter. I’m one of those people who really liked Cziffra Jr.’s conducting, so please don’t think I am underrating him in this respect, but both the deep sensitivity and the excitement generated by Cluytens in this performance are phenomenal, and Cziffra himself responds to his conducting with an equal match of mood and feeling. (Yes, I’m aware that there are flubs in the orchestra, but to me such things are minor when the feeling is right.)
Cziffra gave a performance of Liszt’s Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes six days before this one, on March 6, 1959, conducted by Bernhard Conz. It’s available on the same Idi CD as the concerto with Vernizzi. I haven’t heard it, so I can’t make a real comparison, but I generally trust Cluytens’s work, particularly in live performance. My issue with it is not the performance quality but the musical quality. To me, it’s scarcely one of Liszt’s better or more interesting works; in fact, it sounds patched together. But of course Cziffra plays it as if it were a good piece of music, thus one is caught up in his enthusiasm.
By way of proving how delicately and sensitively Cziffra could play, this disc ends with two short encores from a concert in Luxembourg. Lully’s Gavotte en Rondeau is given a treatment so sensitive that I defy you to play it in a blindfold test and ask your listener to guess who the pianist is—he sounds like Cortot or Entremont here. Likewise, his version of the Scarlatti Sonata in D has all the Italianate sparkle of Landowska’s performances of this composer’s music on the harpsichord.
The recorded sound is a trifle murky in the pieces with orchestra, though I’m sure ICA’s engineers did all they could with the original tape source. At least there is no distortion on Cziffra’s piano. This one is very highly recommended.
Lynn René Bayley