GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16; LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major; Hungarian Fantasia; LULLY: Gavotte en rondeau in D Minor; D. SCARLATTI: Sonata in D Major, K. 96 “La Chasse” – Georges Cziffra, p./ Orch. National de l’ORTF/ Georges Tzipine (Grieg)/ Andre Cluytens – ICA Classics ICAC 5079, 69:42 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Few pianists raise both the hackles and expectations of auditors and critics as much as the late Georges Cziffra (1921-1994), the Hungarian virtuoso whose arrival in Vienna and Paris in 1956 stirred incredible controversy. Likened to Liszt and Horowitz, Cziffra seemed to revive the old Romantic standard for bravura performance, that music served to glorify the personality of the interpreter, and the notes merely provided “guidelines” for their sonic realization. Certainly, the Grieg Concerto here offered with conductor Tzipine (17 April 1959) embodies a willful vision, rife with excitement and distortion; but if the frenzy of music-making lights the spirit, then Cziffra’s charisma proves undeniable and irresistible.
That Cziffra possessed singular pianistic gifts none with ears can dismiss: an iron left hand made for Chopin’s metric rigors, and a hair-trigger sense of pulse that could crescendo within the bar over a canny pedal technique. These assets, added to a huge span, an innate sense of musical drama through refined rubato, and a delight in the spectacular, made Liszt Cziffra’s natural milieu; but he brought his demonic flair to all his repertory, including many sparkling miniatures. His poetry, too, could disarm, and few who know the Cziffra Schubert F Minor Impromptu, D. 935 from a Japan recital do not weep in awe at his splendid colors. After a more than potent entry into the Grieg, we have nothing but robust, even fiendish applications of Grieg’s natural lyricism; then we wait through “mere” mastery of the Adagio to find ourselves hurtled into the last movement. The alternate surges of velocity and introspective musing will either engross or irritate, depending on one’s puritan ethos. The volcanic flamboyance of the final pages will set teeth to grinding or jaw to dropping, so wear a muzzle. The Paris audience is still cheering.
Cziffra and Cluytens (12 March 1959) take a marcato approach to the opening of the Liszt E-flat Concerto, a reading more to the introspectively lyrical side of the composer rather than the heaven-storming creator of the epithet for the motto theme, “This none of you understands!” The poetic muse, however, does no disservice to the intricate tracery that Cziffra and the solo violin enact in the Allegro maestoso, and Cluytens can flare up when the occasion arises. The tempo rubato Cziffra applies enhances the deep intimacy of the occasion, quite palpable in the dreamy, tear-drop Quasi adagio section, as lovely a nocturne as I know. Upon the entrance of the triangle in the Allegro vivace, the tenor changes into a playfully impish, translucent series of textures, piano and pizzicati strings in competition for the more diaphanous sound. The sudden volcano, heretofore dormant, rises in shattering waves over the tympani to announce the motto once more, brass blazing and Cziffra in full throttle into the Allegro marziale animato, which, in a combination of resplendent menace and pyrotechnical audacity, simply sweeps us away. If we thought the Fantasia on Hungarian Themes were not an aggrandized Hungarian Rhapsody, Cziffra and Cluytens soon remind us how much national Hungarian and gypsy (cimbalom) sensibilities have in common, especially when played con licenza in the heroically grand manner.
The two “encores,” taped in Luxembourg (20 January 1959) allow Cziffra to concentrate his powers into a ball, a Romantic’s indulgence in the stately court of Louis XIV on the one hand, and the bejeweled corridors of Ferdinand and Isbella on the other. Always fascinating, this devil Cziffra!
“Perhaps the most fluently consummate performer on the keyboard of all time…”