And His Interpretations
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György Cziffra was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist in the 20th century who delighted, astounded, staggered and moved many, yet also shocked, horrified and outraged many with his unique interpretations.
György Cziffra was born on 5 November 1921 in a poverty-stricken town called Angel Court in Budapest, Hungary. As a very young child he was constantly ill, and was confined to bed for most of these years. However, at one point his sister raised enough money to buy a piano, which she practised scales and arpeggios on often. György was fascinated by the movements on the keys and mimicked the scale and arpeggio patterns while in bed. Soon he started playing these on the piano, often playing 5 hours a day, and quickly progressed to be better than his sister, to her dismay. At the age of 5 he was invited to play in a circus, where he improvised on melodies called out by the audience, to great acclaim. He was also paid well, which helped his very poor family. However, he had to stop soon, as he was very weak.
Some years later, Cziffra and his mum took a long journey to have an audition with the Director of the Budapest Academy of Music, Ernst von Dohnanyi. He was accepted and had lessons there until he was conscripted to fight in World War II. He had many lucky escapes and periods of time spent as a prisoner, and at one point decided not to ever play piano again, but the other soldiers convinced him to relearn after years of not playing. Later, Cziffra returned to Budapest and improvised in many pubs and bars. Around this time he also started playing jazz (Cziffra left a recording of his version of Youman’s Tea For Two) however this was mostly constrained to the time he spent in Budapest. He was married to an Egyptian named Soleilka, and after the war had a son. They decided to leave Hungary, for they decided that there was nothing there for Cziffra to succeed, and there were many setbacks of living under the communist rule. However, crossing the border was very difficult, and they were caught. Cziffra was consequently tortured and made to do manual labour for a couple of years. This made Cziffra’s arm ligaments extremely swollen, and so he devised a band to help when playing. After a year of training, he became a virtuoso concert pianist once again.
At the start of this career, he was asked to play Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto – which was considered unplayable at the time – as two pianists before him dropped out of the task. It was a great success when he performed it, however, as he wrote in his memoirs, the audience (who were weary of the excesses of the current regime) ran out of the concert hall after the concert and while singing the National Anthem, they ripped down anything along the streets that had an emblem other than the national flag. After a consequent big uprising, the government had to flee to a new refuge. The revolt was soon put down, and the new regime did its best to gloss it over as a mere passing error.
Cziffra frequently improvised when performing pieces by Liszt in concerts, which was a tradition of pianists in Liszt’s time – Liszt himself improvised very often – however this was going out of fashion in the 20th century, so many people didn’t like the added improvisations to pieces which they thought ruined them. In Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody, which he recorded many times, he had different improvisations or sudden speed changes in each one. For example, his recording from 1955 in Prague included various improvisations decorated around the piece, but most notable are the octave passages towards the end of the piece, which he speeds up to a superhuman-like tempo. This can be compared to a recording for EMI in which his performance is quite different, with less improvisation (although there is still some) and tempo changes.
There are many recordings of Cziffra’s improvisations. These are extremely virtuosic – for example, this one from 1950 includes superhuman-like scale and arpeggio passages along with very fast and complex octave passages. One of the styles that Cziffra very often used in his improvisations was that of Johann Strauss II. He frequently used famous melodies by him and played around with them, which was a habit that he developed from childhood – he was trained to do this as a child. The period of his life when he played jazz can be heard in this jazz-influenced, but still very much Cziffra-style, in this improvisation which reaches extreme heights of virtuosity.
Cziffra often infused his Gypsy style of playing into more of the wilder pieces by Liszt. One example of this is the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 by Liszt. In this video of it the Gypsy style and improvisations are evident throughout. The kind of Gypsy music influence that Cziffra received is evident in this video, which he infused into his unique Hungarian Rhapsodies recordings.
Many people admired and revered Cziffra. For example, Marcel Dupre once said, “If I were a Buddhist instead of being a Christian, I would teach that Cziffra is at the piano the reincarnation of Liszt”, while one London reviewer, Clinton Grey-Fisk, wrote that “He combines the precision of a metronome with the electrical discharge of a thunderstorm’. Yves Petit De Voize summed it up well; “Cziffra, half-archangel and half-demon, swept aside with his magic caress, or tore asunder with the lash of his whip, our preconceived notions of music, taking by surprise our whole pianistic tradition.” Many also described Cziffra as “greater than Horowitz”, which was surely a very bold thing to declare, since Horowitz had many, many fans. However, soon after Cziffra’s dazzling tours in London and elsewhere in the 1950s, critics started constantly attacking his playing. Harold Schonberg from the New York Times thought that he could not play louder without getting faster, and many others wrote about his “his distortions of the music’s natural line and perspective”, but, as Bryce Morrision noted in the booklet notes for Medici’s CD of Cziffra’s 1964 Tokyo recital, “behind those virulent attacks there was more than a touch of envy of such overwhelming powers”.
He did, however, also have many measured performances which conformed to the modern expectations, yet still had a unique touch and style. For example, his Beethoven performances exuberate this quality. In the Pathetique Sonata, he never uses his trademark style (which includes changing the tempos as he wishes, improvising and changing dynamics). When György Cziffra moved to France in the 1950s he liked to play French baroque pieces by composers such as Lully, Couperin, Rameau, Daquin and Marais. In this recording of Lully’s ‘Gavotte en Rondeau’, and Couperin’s ‘Le Tic Toc Choc Ou Les Maillotins’ another side of Cziffra can be seen. Many people think of the Hungarian Rhapsodies and other such wild works when Cziffra comes to mind, but he did have a more delicate side with perhaps more considered (in the traditional sense) interpretations (not to say that his Hugarian Rhapsodies weren’t considered).
György Cziffra’s playing style changed throughout his life. His early years in France and touring in other countries in the 1950s and early 1960s were a time where some of his most intense, passionate, improvisatory, fiery and virtuosic recordings took place. But after that his playing started to lose those qualities, and instead became a bit more reserved and spiritual, especially after his son died in a house fire. He continued to play and improvise (this is an example from 1993) right up to his death from cancer in 1994, and he remains a phenomenon in the history of piano playing.
This article uses information from Cziffra’s autobiography: Canons and Flowers.