Back in the fifties my music master took me to the Royal Festival Hall
to hear Georges Cziffra. This momentous occasion was as much a political
event as a musical one. Having recently breached the 'iron curtain' in
a dramatic escape to the West from his native Hungary (where he had recently
been imprisoned) in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution, the press had
hyped him up into a newly discovered world class virtuoso cum freedom
fighter. He fell into the role with much aplomb.
I’m ashamed to say I can't remember what he played
as his main programme at that London debut but it was bound to have
included Liszt. Seizing on the irresistible opportunity to play on the
nationalistic connection, the press was billing him as the greatest
Liszt player of the age, a virtuoso who had all the authority of a born
and bred Hungarian.
Incidentally, I'm even more ashamed to admit that I
do remember the main encore. He had gone to the trouble of memorising
Beethoven's variations on God Save the King. The flattered audience
Great Liszt player Cziffra undoubtedly was. His challenging,
adversarial approach was to charge at the music as if to tame it. Now
this works very well for a deal of Liszt's music, but Chopin is another
matter. What amazes is how well the Waltzes and Impromptus on this disc
stand up to the battering, and it is Cziffra's technique that saves
the day. Although he has a rather steely, rubato-ridden approach to
the slower melodic passages (there is nothing dreamy about his Chopin)
he is also capable of a Richteresque delicate fleetness which is not
given to many. It is this that makes the famous Minute Waltz (no.6)
one of the most successful numbers on the disc - quite breathtaking
– and in the flowing, delicate lyricism of no. 10 in B minor
I found him magical.
On the other hand, his mannered rubato in some of the
slow waltzes such as no. 9 (L’Adieu) is at odds with accounts
of Chopin's own playing which involved, for example, a steady left hand
with subtly varying rubato for the right hand melody. But, whatever
he's up to, Cziffra has an extraordinary ability to highlight those
passing moments of melody in the inner parts. I began to hear things
I never knew were there before.
On the whole, as you might expect, the Impromptus respond
better to the Cziffra treatment, especially no. 1 in A flat which
I thought particularly fine.
How you like your Chopin played can be a very personal
thing. I like mine fairly straight so to me this disc is something of
a curate’s egg. There is some wayward, mannered playing that can irritate,
although, to be fair, as I got stuck into the disc I was becoming more
won over, and at least there is a consistency to some of the mannerisms,
But there are also passages that have great delicacy and others that
have power and well paced climaxes. However you respond to this, one
thing is without question – a really formidable pianist is at work here.