[For some background on Franz Liszt, see this first post in the series on Legendary Liszt Performers].
Of all the great pianists history has produced, none has suffered so grievously as György Cziffra. It is common to say that creative people suffer for their art. Beethoven, certainly, was obliged to spend most of his adult life confronting his deafness. Cziffra, however, endured physical and mental suffering, including torture, that would have destroyed most people. He survived this torment to go on to develop a brilliant career as a concert pianist. How was that possible?
Born in 1921 in Budapest, Hungary, Cziffra’s family was quite poor. His father was a musician who didn’t make a very good living at it, but there was a piano in the house. Cziffra was drawn to the instrument at a very early age, and without receiving any training, he began picking out tunes on the piano and creating his own accompaniments. For a brief while, around age seven he performed at a local circus, and as his talents were beginning to be appreciated, his parents obtained for him a position at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest as a student of the famous composer Ernst Dohnanyi. Cziffra was age nine when he began his studies.
Cziffra spent eleven happy years at the Academy, perfecting his technical and interpretive skills, and naturally developing an affinity for Franz Liszt’s music. Much of what we know from this early period comes from his autobiography, Cannons and Flowers. In his late teens, he began a performing career in Hungary, and then toured in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. He met his wife Soleilka during this period, and all was going swimmingly for the new family, when the Second World War intervened. As a Hungarian citizen, Cziffra was subject to military service, and in 1941 he was conscripted and sent off to the Russian front (Hungary was aligned with the Axis Powers), where he was captured by a Russian paramilitary force, which kept him as a prisoner throughout the war. This was in one way fortunate; there was no telling what fate would have awaited Cziffra had the Russian army captured him. Still, the conditions were cruel, food was limited, and he was forced to pick up a rifle and fight for the Soviet Union. Cziffra took to alcohol, as did many soldiers at the time. He was released when the Soviets won the war on the eastern front, and Cziffra made his way back to Hungary, where he took care of his wife and son by playing in bars and clubs, and throwing in classical music as well, especially that of Liszt, a national hero.
In the early 1950’s Hungary fell to Communist Party rule, initiated by the Soviet Union which was building a cordon of client states in Eastern Europe. Cziffra tried to escape after his wife Soleilka, who was Egyptian, and his infant son were attacked and beaten by mobs. Cziffra failed in his escape, and was sent to a labor camp, where he was beaten and hung by the wrists. The conditions were much crueler than anything he experienced during the war. Prisoners were sent into isolation for the slightest infraction, medical care was almost non-existent, and able-bodied men like Cziffra were obliged to do manual labor for ten hours a day.
Cziffra was assigned to a work crew building a stone staircase, and the heavy stones took a toll on his body. His hands and fingers swelled up daily, and in order to avoid this, Cziffra bound his wrists tightly with leather straps. As a consequence of his torture in the camp and the work he was obliged to do, his wrist tendons were stretched out of shape permanently. Cziffra was released after three years of hard labor, and he began again to plot his escape from Hungary. This time, he was intent on bringing his wife and son, and his efforts were successful. He arrived in Paris in the mid-1950’s and began the arduous work of rebuilding his concert career.
Even in his youngest days it was noted that Cziffra’s piano playing ability was largely natural, and not just the result of excellent teaching and many hours of practice. This natural talent allowed Cziffra to rebuild his technical skills fairly quickly. When he felt he was ready to appear before the public, he burst on the musical scene with almost complete surprise. The public knew little about him, other than the tragic stories regarding the war years, but they were certainly astounded by what they heard. Here was a major pianistic talent with a phenomenal technique that ranked him immediately among the greatest artists of his day.
In the 1950’s, Cziffra’s playing and his programs were intended to please the audiences and beguile the critics. Overnight he was known as the premier performer of Liszt’s works for the piano, since he played so many of them, with a degree of brilliance unheard of before or after the war. When playing the piano, on his right wrist he would wear a leather band from his prison days to provide support, and, he said, to remind him of the ordeal he had survived in order to be able to appear on a concert stage.
Cziffra was highly sought after by major concert halls for solo recitals and concerto performances. He was an extremely reliable performer, in the sense that his command of the keyboard was such he rarely hit wrong notes or had memory lapses, and his playing was so spectacular that a sold-out concert was almost always guaranteed. Initially he included the United States in his travels, appearing at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago and Carnegie Hall in New York, but in the 1960’s and 1970’s he concentrated most of his appearances in Europe. As a consequence he was not as widely known in the U.S. as in Europe.
While appreciated largely as an eminent Liszt performer, Cziffra had a broad range of Romantic composers he admired and whose music he played. Chopin and Schumann were frequently scheduled on his programs, and he recorded a good deal of Chopin’s music. Brahms and Debussy were two other composers he favored, but he did not extend himself too far into the 20th century except for popular pieces, such as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, de Falla’s Danse Rituelle du Feu. His most significant foray into the modern era was to record the Bartok piano concerto. At the other end of the historical spectrum, he recorded eight Beethoven sonatas and a few Mozart sonatas, along with some Couperin and Scarlatti. His explorations of Bach’s music consisted of transcriptions by Busoni of Bach’s larger works.
In 20th century terms, however, this repertoire must be considered quite eclectic and broad-ranging, compared say to the preoccupation Glenn Gould had with Bach’s music, or the concentration on Beethoven that was the hallmark of Rudolf Serkin’s recitals. Cziffra’s technique was so all-encompassing and refined in terms of its accuracy and his command of virtually any challenge at the keyboard, that it made it possible for Cziffra to explore difficult music of any era and position it in his repertoire relatively quickly. We should add that a significant part of Cziffra’s programming involved his own compositions, mostly transcriptions of other composer’s melodies. As can be expected, these were showpieces in the Franz Liszt tradition, such as the five transcriptions on Johann Strauss waltzes, which were the sort of music Liszt would have composed had he had the time or inclination to devote to Strauss’s music.
In the 1970’s, Cziffra began to collaborate with his son, a concert pianist and conductor, named György Cziffra Jr., Cziffra took great pride in his son’s accomplishments, which is why it was such a blow to him when his son died accidentally in 1981 as a result of a fire in his apartment. There is probably only so much tragedy any individual can absorb in their life, and this unexpected death of his son plunged Cziffra into a depression from which he never recovered. He refused to appear on stage as a performer after this trauma, devoting most of his time publicly to promoting his music festival and competition in Paris. There is some suggestion from his close friends that his playing skills declined after 1981, which might have contributed to his withdrawal from the concert stage. His health began to deteriorate in the late 1980’s, and a lifetime of smoking cigarettes brought on a heart condition associated with lung cancer. He died in January of 1994.
We are going to hear three selections from Cziffra’s discography and video performances, each of which exemplify some aspect of his career, and all of which are selections from Liszt’s enormous number of piano compositions. Cziffra recorded almost 50 Liszt compositions, and this along with his interpretive genius in performing Liszt’s music, qualifies him as one of the greatest Liszt performers of the 20th century.
What to Listen For
The first characteristic of Cziffra’s playing that one notices is the incredible speed with which he can handle the most difficult passages. This is best seen in one of his signature pieces – Liszt’s Grand Galop Chromatique. This music is a fantasy on two themes which involve the chromatic scale, which consists of the keyboard’s consecutive white and black keys played up or down the keyboard. This is a ferociously difficult piece of music, rarely heard because modern pianists do not want to invest the years of work necessary to get this music up to performance standards. One who has is Lang Lang, and while he plays this music with great style and wit, emphasizing the humor in the music, he does not approach the speed Cziffra applies to this piece. Cziffra is absolutely on fire in this music, and it especially helps that we have a video of his performance of the Grand Galop Chromatique. Here you can see the nearly-inhuman ability Cziffra has to control chromatic octaves, chords of fifths and sixths, big octave leaps in the left hand, tremolos and so forth, with perfect clarity and incredible pace. His tendency to speed up the music at each introduction of the theme is also effective here, and when he wants to he can pound out the opening beat on each bar, which with the booming bass notes on this piano, reminds you of Horowitz in his showpieces. As much as we understand Liszt was the greatest concert pianist of the 19th century, and perhaps of all time, in this music, he probably could not have kept the pace that Cziffra applies here. By the way, look closely at Cziffra’s right wrist and you can see the leather band he wore around his right wrist at all performances.
On the internet there are some tremendous performances of this music by professional artists, and the version we will hear by Cziffra is rivaled only by Jorge Bolet for elegance, musicality, delicate tone, and well-balanced bravura. This last quality is critical in Cziffra’s performance. The Rigoletto Paraphrase has a considerable amount of right hand filigree work, octaves played pianissimo, and delicate chromatic scales. It is very easy to play these passages too loudly, or with too much virtuosic heroism. Then, in those sections where Liszt does call for bravura and a glorious sound, it becomes tempting to over-balance these sections with fortissimo chords that can drift into banging and noise in the hands of an amateur. Listen for the shimmering quality of Cziffra’s ornamental passages, the evenness of his chromatic scales, the full control he displays in his pianissimo octave passages, and then the forceful passages and coda that do not overwhelm the rest of the music.
Finally, there is one other quality in this performance that is not often associated with Cziffra but which appeared frequently later in his career. That quality is the way in which he takes the Rigoletto Paraphrase at a leisurely pace. He lingers over the famous melodies and their cadences. He lets this music breathe, which really sets this recording apart from other performances on the internet. This is the mark of a mature artist uninterested in dazzling you with technique, but preferring instead to let his astounding technique disappear in the background so that you don’t think about it, and focus only on the musical message.