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Gramophone, July 2011

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (Woytowicz, Delorie, Cologne Radio Chorus and Symphony, W. Steinberg) (1965) ICAC5001
BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 3 (BBC Northern Symphony, K. Sanderling) (1978) ICAC5005
Piano Recital: Cziffra, Gyorgy - LISZT, F. / BACH, C.P.E. / COUPERIN, F. / SCARLATTI, D. (Cziffra in Prague, 1955) ICAC5008

The newly launched ICA Classics label has come up with at least a couple of real gems. Readers who, like me, have an aversion to overly luxuriant, emotionally manipulative Mahler will delight in William Steinberg’s clear-headed 1965 Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra broadcast of the Resurrection Symphony, a startlingly direct statement of a score that is too often treated to extremes of mood and tempo. Steinberg’s straightforward route means that the great climactic denouement is both well timed and genuinely uplifting. The soprano Stefania Woytowicz is the more convincing of Steinberg’s two soloists.

I was also interested to hear an uncommonly stolid but in many ways imposing account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Kempe, not exactly a seasoned Mahlerian but certainly a man with a definite view of the music. Kurt Sanderling (now retired) was, it would seem, a rather more convinced Mahler conductor than Kempe and, in a gripping 1982 interview with Piers Burton-Page, refers briefly to “late” Mahler as well as to some key events in his own long career. The main item on this desirable ICA Classics CD is a transparent and well-structured reading of Bruckner’s Third Symphony (1888/89 version) with what was the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic), one of Sanderling’s swifter performances but in no way lacking in gravitas. A Georges Cziffra all-Liszt recital had me rubbing my eyes in disbelief, principally at two performances recorded in Prague in 1955: the Rapsodie espagnole, where Cziffra’s playing summons enormous excitement yet never overheats, and the Second Hungarian Rhapsody, the slow first section very slow, the “friss” second part full of fizz and original interpretative thinking. There are two exciting bonus tracks, both recorded in Turin in 1959, the pitch-black Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H (not, as stated, the Bach-Liszt Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV542) and a thunderous account of Funérailles.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, June 2011

Perhaps it’s the precedent of a big set called ‘Oistrakh in Prague’ that led me to think, wrongly, that this Cziffra disc contained rare examples of the pianist caught, as was David Oistrakh, in ‘live’ recitals in the city. In fact the notes quickly alert one to the fact that Cziffra made an LP recording there in 1955 and that this is the result, transferred in ‘ambient remastering’ which seems to be, in its varying forms, something of a trend at the moment. This process ‘creates a sense of space and width to a mono, or very narrow stereo, recording.’ It’s not reverb, but I point it out to those who find the concept unpersuasive.

The recital is in part at least hardly a prototypical Cziffra one, being a largely baroque-and-Liszt recital. There’s genuine warmth of legato in the unmannered playing of C.P.E. Bach Andantino cantabile and then a run of Scarlatti sonatas—better known ones. The F major is genial, and there are fluently rounded trills in the C major as well as a nicely characterised series of fanfare figures. Liszt of course is very much Cziffra’s thing but the strangely balanced LP programme offered the Rhapsodie espagnole and the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. The first is played with quite watchful and refined pragmatism—well balanced, not overtly driven except perhaps toward the end, when more operatic pretensions emerge. The Hungarian Rhapsody is played with great magnetism and control of dynamics. Cziffra maintains a sense of tension even in this, one of the more hackneyed of Liszt’s pieces, and so too in the slowest sections he ensures that things cohere metrically. The close is certainly cheeky, and a sign of the real Cziffra. The so-called ‘bonus’ tracks—can you really have bonus tracks lasting 22 minutes, which bring the total timing to only 64?—offer more Liszt, this time genuinely live in Turin in January 1959; Funérailles and the Prelude and Fugue on the name of Bach—which the notes have wrongly listed as the Bach Prelude and Fugue in G minor BWV542, as transcribed by Liszt. Here one can appreciate Cziffra’s dramatic instincts with perhaps greater immediacy than anywhere else in these performances.

…best sought by Cziffra collectors.

Jed Distler, June 2011

The Bach, Scarlatti, and Couperin selections plus the two Liszt Rhapsodies comprise a very rare 1955 Georges Cziffra Supraphon LP…that makes its first “official” CD appearance here. While the sonics and the piano leave something to be desired, Cziffra is on prime form. He inflects the C.P.E. Bach sonata movement to a wider, more poetic degree than in his relatively “straighter” EMI version. Scarlatti’s K. 159 is lighter and more lilting here than in Cziffra’s harder-edged 1969 remake, although I prefer the 1956 EMI version’s more pronounced left-hand detailing.

The three remaining Scarlatti sonatas are otherwise unrepresented in Cziffra’s discography, and they’re as pointed and pianistically oriented as you’d expect from this artist. Couperin’s Les Moissonneurs is measured and beautifully rounded, but I think the finger legato in Cziffra’s brisker 1969 recording comes closer to the stylistic mark. As for Cziffra’s unabashedly over-the-top Liszt playing, with its gaunt profile, roller-coaster tempo fluctuations, and madcap interlocking octaves—what can you say, other than “have fun!” The performances are comparable to the pianist’s later studio remakes, but with a higher adrenaline quotient; ditto for the two “bonus” tracks taken from Cziffra’s January 1959 Turin recital previously issued by Arkadia. Note that the Bach/Liszt G minor Fantasia and Fugue BWV 542 listed on the back of the CD actually is Liszt’s original Fantasy and Fugue on the name B-A-C-H…

Rob Pennock, February 2011

International Classical Artists (previously Van Walsum) is perhaps best-known as a management agency. Its new Legacy label, CDs and DVDs, concentrates mostly on live recordings. This Cziffra disc features two Liszt items from a 1958 Turin concert and a rare 1955 Supraphon LP. The main point of interest is the baroque composers, whom Cziffra is not associated with.

First though consideration needs to be given to ‘ambient mastering’. You would hope that all due care-and-attention was taken in the remastering process, so it is rather surprising to find that there are varying degrees of pitch fluctuation on the vinyl-derived tracks, which becomes wearying to listen to. One can only assume that the original LP (from a private source) was a bad pressing. Early Supraphon LPs tend to have substantial distortion. There is also a hint of over-aggressive filtering, which becomes excessive on the live tracks, and when played on high-quality equipment, the sound is slightly dead on the Prague tracks and veiled on the Turin items.

With regard to ‘ambient mastering’—which has been championed by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio—the recording’s original ambience is isolated and expanded and the sound image enlarged to fill that space. The results can be starling, especially on 24-bit Flac downloads, which, for analogue-derived material, are far removed from horribly compressed MP3 files)—but even 16-bit (CD quality) downloads aren’t available from ICA, which is disappointing. Without hearing the original LP it is difficult to judge whether the instrument’s image has been improved, but it certainly sounds more like HMV ALP 1446 (Cziffra playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies) than a product of the Soviet bloc, whose recording technology was somewhat limited. The sound from the live concert is much fuller than is the norm.

Mention is made in the booklet note of the “less than ideal instrument provided fro this recording”, but it is difficult to decide how much of its thin, clangorous sound (at the start of Rhapsodie espagnole it comes perilously close to sounding like a pub Joanna!) is down to the piano and how much to the original recording.

There is though nothing that seriously detracts from the performances, which are fascinating because they show a rather different Cziffra to that encountered in say Tokyo in 1964 (Medici Arts) in that the performances are less driven. His playing of the slow movement from C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in B minor is refined, with gentle rubato and minimal use of the pedals. The first of the Scarlatti sonatas (Kk446) is very slow, with subtly varied touch, dynamics and what sounds like an added bass octave at the end. Kk159 dances by with beautifully sift finger-work, the A major work is very fast with strong hints of Bach, and the final sonata is emphatically phrased. Couperin’d Les Moissonneurs (The Reaper) is a short rondo and Cziffra makes it bounce along, with each section given a different character. On this evidence one can only regret that Cziffra did not—unlike Horowitz—record more Scarlatti and also essay Bach.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to Liszt. Rhapsodie espagnole is a minute longer than the manic performance given in Tokyo. But there is still enormous power and attack and each section is very strongly characterized. The Second Hungarian Rhapsody is based on a czardas and receives a beautifully nuanced performance, the lassú section very slow and languorously expressive, the faster friska episode has exceptionally clear articulation, and the coda is a tour de force.

Some four later, Cziffra was on tour in Italy, where in Turin ha gave a substantial recital devoted to Liszt. Given that there are only two tracks on offer here, you do wonder if the rest of the recital was recorded. Unfortunately, one piece is misattributed: the work is not the advertised Bach Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (BWV542), as transcribed by Liszt, but Liszt’s original composition, Fantasy and fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H, here in the composer’s arrangement for piano of organ piece. This magnificent creation is given a powerful, but too literal performance. Alfred Brendel made the definitive recording of it in 1977 (for Philips) and he underlines the heavily chromatic nature of the piece and its stark monumentality in a way that Cziffra—for all of his virtually note-perfect virtuosity—cannot equal.

The disc includes with Funérailles in which the massive, tolling, opening bass chords are delivered with power and the ensuing chant-like melody has great simplicity and inwardness. The faster episode that interrupts this reverie is strict and suitably martial, the octave climax is powerful, and the return of the first section is suitably elegiac—and yet something is missing. If you turn to Horowitz in 1950 (BMG) this is more clearly a funeral march, the climax is terrifyingly intense, and nowhere is there the suspicion that virtually is being used for anything other than expressive purposes. What remains most in the memory of this Cziffra release are the Baroque pieces.

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