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A remarkable prodigy, Gyorgy Cziffra received tuition from his father, and by the age of five was improvising in public. His family was extremely poor and performances at the local circus benefited the family income. Fortunately, at the age of nine Cziffra entered the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest studying with Ernő Dohnányi. By the age of twelve Cziffra was again performing in public, giving concerts in many of Hungary’s principal cities. In 1937 he played in Holland and Scandinavia but was conscripted into the army in the autumn of 1942. His unbearable treatment is chronicled in his autobiography Cannons and Flowers. Worse was to follow when he was captured and taken prisoner. Of this period he wrote, ‘Looking back from afar over that period of my life, I can take a more balanced view of the ravages of that hideous cancer of the mind which grew perniciously until it almost transformed me into a living corpse.’ The privations were intolerable, but worse was the fact that Cziffra did not see a piano for this whole nightmare period of his life.

Having married at nineteen and left a pregnant wife when he joined the army, on returning to Hungary in 1947 Cziffra had to play the piano in bars and clubs to support his wife and son. He improvised at these venues and on one occasion was heard by György Ferenczy, a well-known piano teacher, who encouraged him to study and practise. As much as twelve hours a day was spent working at the keyboard with the prospect of the evening work at a club or bar to follow. By 1950 Cziffra and his family decided to leave Hungary for better prospects in the West, but his plan was discovered and he was again imprisoned, this time for his political beliefs. Amazingly, he survived three years of heavy manual labour, separated both from his family and the piano. In 1953 he was released and again began playing. Two years later he won the Franz Liszt International Piano Competition in Budapest and the following year Cziffra and his family escaped to Vienna where he gave a concert in November 1956. A few weeks later he was causing a sensation in Paris and London, almost overnight becoming a celebrity.

Cziffra settled with his family in France, eventually taking French citizenship and changing his name to Georges. He began the restoration of the organ of the Abbey of La Chaise-Dieu in the Auvergne, later founding a festival there, and set up the Cziffra Foundation, the main aim of which was to restore the Chapelle Royale de Saint-Frambourg at Senlis and support young artists. In 1973 Cziffra bought the Chapelle with his own money and created the Franz Liszt auditorium, financing this by undertaking a long series of concerts. In 1969 at Versailles Cziffra organised an international piano competition bearing his name and from 1986 he gave classes in advanced piano playing at Senlis. Toward the end of his career he gave few concerts, perhaps only six or seven a year, devoting his time to the Foundation; although in 1984 he played in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. A final tragedy in Cziffra’s life was the death of his son György (1942–1981) who was killed in a fire. Father and son had performed and recorded many times together as György junior was a conductor.

Cziffra’s pianism was unique. He had a technique with hair-trigger reactions that allowed him to accomplish things at the keyboard that sounded physically impossible. It was not an effortless virtuosity; certain phrases could be driven with an extraordinary white-hot surge of power giving the feeling that Cziffra was often pushing himself to his limit. He will be forever associated with the works of Liszt, and he is one of the few pianists with the sheer bravura to give a convincing performance of works such as the Grand galop chromatique. When listening to this recording one can sense how Liszt himself drove his audiences into paroxysms of delight and wonder. After the 1960s some of the incandescence faded from Cziffra’s performances, and the recordings from the 1970s and 1980s have a certain air of aridity about them, but in his prime Cziffra was one of the most extraordinary pianists of the twentieth century.

Cziffra’s first recordings were made for Hungaroton between 1954 and 1956. He recorded much of his then-current repertoire for the company, and this has been released on compact disc by Hungaroton, and by APR in Britain. In addition to concertos by Grieg and Liszt, many works that came to be associated with Cziffra were recorded: Balakirev’s Islamey; his own transcriptions and arrangements of Johann Strauss, Brahms and Verdi; and Liszt, including the Grand galop chromatique, Valse impromptu, some Hungarian Rhapsodies and Études d’exécution transcendante. One LP was made for the Czechoslovakian label Supraphon when he was giving recitals in Prague in 1955, and concerts in Vienna and Paris the following year led to him being signed by EMI for whom he made the first of many recordings in Paris in December 1956. Apart from a few recordings for Philips in the mid 1960s, Cziffra remained with EMI for the rest of his career.

Of the early EMI recordings the most important are obviously those of Liszt. His first LP for EMI was a Liszt recital and it contained his definitive versions of the Mephisto-Waltz No. 1, La Campanella, Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este and the Grand galop chromatique. Another stunning LP from the late 1950s was of Cziffra’s own improvisations and transcriptions of works by Johann Strauss, Rossini, Brahms and Rimsky-Korsakov. Two delightful LPs from the early 1960s entitled Pages Immortelles proved that Cziffra could give sensitive readings of miniatures such as Beethoven’s Für Elise and Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin. At this time he also played short works by early keyboard composers and in the early 1980s recorded a disc of music by Daquin, Rameau, Lully and Couperin.

All the EMI recordings from the late 1950s and early 1960s are impressive. They include the Liszt solos already mentioned, the Études d’exécution transcendante, the Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos 1–15, (still held by many to be the definitive version and superior to the later recording from the early 1970s), and both piano concertos as well as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor Op. 23. Apart from Liszt, there are also fine recordings of Schumann’s Carnaval and Faschingsschwank aus Wien.

For Philips Cziffra recorded Chopin and Liszt. Highlights include his infamous account of Chopin’s twenty-four études. Never have the fast études been delivered with such astounding virtuosity: a virtuosity almost on the edge of vulgarity that is unacceptable to some, yet thrilling and exciting to others. Exceptional performances of Liszt’s La Leggierezza and Tarantella (from Venezia e Napoli) still amaze after repeated hearings, and a Cziffra rarity, Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the name of BACH is well worth hearing for its overpowering effect. Many of these Philips recordings were included in the Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century edition.

In the late 1960s Cziffra set up his own company, Cziffra Productions, for which he recorded the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor and some Beethoven sonatas. This was the period in his career when he was searching for a new direction away from the label of pyrotechnic virtuoso. Back with EMI in the early 1970s, he recorded more Beethoven sonatas and much Chopin, including both sonatas, Barcarolle Op. 60, Tarantelle Op. 43 and Bolero Op. 19. More Liszt appeared in the form of the complete Années de pèlerinage and a second recording of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, and in the late 1970s he recorded again the waltzes of Chopin (which he had earlier recorded for Philips) and a disc of Liszt containing his only recording of the Polonaise No. 1 in C minor; the rest of the disc was of works he had recorded twenty years earlier, and in far superior performances. With his son as conductor, recordings were made of concertante works by Weber, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Franck and, one of the few times Cziffra played Rachmaninov, the Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 18. The 1980s saw the release of recordings made at Senlis: more repeat recordings of Chopin, a couple of Schubert impromptus and fifteen of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances arranged by Cziffra. In 1985 and 1986 Cziffra recorded another disc of Liszt, but with the exception of a Liszt rarity (Gaudeamus Igitur), he had previously recorded all the works in superior versions.

It must be said that EMI in France have done Cziffra sterling service by releasing on compact disc practically everything he recorded for them. Les Introuvables de Cziffra appeared on eight discs in 1991, the Cziffra Edition of six discs containing some unpublished material was issued in 1994, and in 1996 EMI France even published the fabled live recording of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 recorded in Budapest in 1956. After a successful recital at the Olympia in Paris in 1969, EMI recorded Cziffra in some of the repertoire he had played and even this material found its way onto compact disc in 1999 albeit in a limited circulation. Many of these discs were only issued in France, and many are at present unavailable.

Live recordings have been issued by APR, Ermitage, RCP and the Cziffra Foundation. These are mostly from later in Cziffra’s career although two of the Italian radio broadcasts on Ermitage are from 1963 and include Schumann’s Carnaval, Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata and some excellent Liszt performances. Perhaps Cziffra’s best live recordings are those, also from Italian radio, made between 1958 and 1960. He played Liszt, including both piano concertos, Totentanz and the Hungarian Fantasy as well as a large recital programme. This is live Cziffra in his prime, but actually witnessing him at the keyboard is an extraordinary experience, and fortunately some television recitals he made for the BBC in 1962 and 1963 were issued on video by EMI in France. One broadcast is prefaced by the most extraordinary display of Cziffra ‘warming-up’ at the keyboard. It has to be seen to be believed, and is now available on DVD.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).

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