Gyorgy Cziffra, The Early Columbia Records – Urania (2 CDs)

by | May 27, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Gyorgy Cziffra, The Early Columbia Records = LISZT: La Campanella; Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat; Mephisto Waltz No. 1; Les Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este; Valse-oubliee No. 1; Rhapsodie espagnole; Valse-impromptu; La Ronde des lutins; Grand galop chromatique; CZIFFRA: Improvisations on Themes from Rossini’s Willliam Tell; BALAKIREV: Islamey; VECSEY: Valse Triste; J. STRAUSS: Tritsch-tratsch Polka; The Blue Danube; BRAHMS: Hungarian Dance No. 5; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Flight of the Bumble-Bee; CHOPIN: Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49; SCHUMANN: Fantasiestuecke, Op. 12; TRAD.: Roumanian Fantasy – Gyorgy Cziffra, piano

Urania URN 22.288,  78:24; 73:41 mono (Distrib. Qualiton) ****:

When I first heard Gyorgy Cziffra’s evocative inscription of Liszt’s Les Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este (on Angel 35528), I mentioned how much I had been impressed to my teacher at SUNY Binghamton, Jean Casadesus. With rather a sneer in his tone, Jean called Cziffra “the gypsy pianist” and dismissed the performance out of hand.  Unsatisfied with Jean’s arrogant dismissal of Cziffra, I decided to audition more, eventually joining the Cziffra Society headed by Francis Romano and acquiring as much of the Cziffra legacy as I could. This restoration of his early Columbia (1956) inscriptions testifies to the flamboyant, natural fluency Cziffra brought to the music of Franz Liszt, where even the most punishing fioritura proved mother’s milk to the pianist’s bravura temperament. The capacity to project sudden flights of romantic agony and ecstatic beatitude is all one to the Lisztian ethos; and Cziffra’s passionate segue in the middle of the A-flat Liebestraum sets the tone for much of the repertory. For a more brittle, harder keyboard patina, try the Mephisto Waltz, played in the bold, Mark Hambourg ballade tradition, with zal and romantic abandon. Even Cziffra’s tremolandi have a sensuous shapeliness to them, a palpable eroticism that infiltrates the Jeux d’eau and the pearly Valse-impromptu.

Like Josef Hofmann, Cziffra remained a master colorist who confined himself within relatively narrow parameters for his repertory, reworking the same pieces to a high, personal luster. Like Hofmann and Horowitz, Cziffra would respond to the inspiration of the moment; what had proved a bland, routine reading of a piece could, one take later, explode with apoplectic ferocity. Cziffra’s leggierissimo made him an exemplary performer of the Transcendental Etudes and Hungarian Rhapsiodies, so the Valse oubliee simply bursts with kaleidoscopic whimsy, then pulls back for a prolonged, erotic moment. The grand showman bestrides the Spanish Rhapsody on La Folia, oozing with enough flair and martial pomp to make Busoni envious. We can see the colorful handkerchiefs making veronicas in the air.

The Concert-Etude Gnomenreigen (La Ronde des Lutins) outshimmers Mendelssohn adumbrating Debussy’s The Snow is Dancing. The Grand galop combines circus frenzy, poor taste, and shameless bravado.  Cziffra’s own setting of William Tell extends the Lisztian paraphrase and reminiscence tradition, opening with the cello line from the overture, proceeding to the thunderstorm with the light aggression of a moviola track cross-fertilized by Godowsky. Dawn breaks with cascades from Rubinstein’s Kimmenoi-Ostrow. Then, it’s heigh-yo Silver a la Toscanini on the keyboard to a blazing finish. We hear some rare left-hand filigree in Balakirev’s digital torture-chamber Islamey; then, Cziffra lingers in the seraglio for the languorous waltz motif, until the Lisztian impulses can no longer be contained and sweep us into Oriental nirvana.

The second disc opens with six Cziffra transcriptions, ranging from the chimes in the Vecsey’s sad waltz to the whirling daintiness of Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov’s drunken bumblebee’s entering Valhalla, all carried off with breathless aplomb, chit-chat become digital tongue-twisters. Fanciful and knotty, these offerings ask why choose simplicity over Byzantine complexity?  Maybe a touch of Gershwin wends its way into the Blue Danube?   Cziffra plays the Brahms Hungarian Dance as a jazzy czardas-etude, in glittering, cimbalom sonorities. The Roumanian Fantasy reminds us that Cziffra was for  several years a café pianist, an brilliant improviser who could splice classical procedures and gypsy effects to any folk or jazz riff. Enescu and Bartok collide in this wild fantasy, Magyar and Transylvanian chants haunting the repeated notes in wild alchemy.

The recital ends with two “serious” compositions, Cziffra’s mainstay Chopin, the F Minor Fantasy, and Schumann’s eight Fantasy-Pieces, Op. 12. In a tenderly sober fashion, Cziffra executes the poetry and drama in Chopin’s tumultuous Fantasy without recourse to mannerism, but with no sacrifice of Cziffra’s wonted, frenetic energy. Searching, savage instincts permeate this reading, Coleridge’s woman howling for her demon lover. The middle section basks in repose after volcanic passions have subsided. Cziffra had a soft spot for Schumann, certainly, often performing Symphonic Etudes, Toccata, the Concerto, and the F Sharp Minor Sonata. As dreamy as Des Abends is and as vigorous as are Aufschwung and Grillen, the poetic impulse saturates Warum? The poetic march yields to hallucination for In der Nacht, and once again for Traumeswirren, each gripping in its intensity. But Eusebius reigns, too, in these pictures, so various, so new; and Fabel and Ende von Lied convince us that Cziffra’s virtuoso coat was decked with many colors.

— Gary Lemco