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Jonathan Woolf
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Seven Variations on God Save the King, WoO 78 [8:50]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Sonata No 1 in F-sharp minor, Op 11 [29:51]
Toccata in C major, Op 7 [5:07]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Fantaisie in F minor, Op 49 [12:39]
Polonaise in A-flat major, Op 53 [7:04]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Étude No 5 in B-flat major "Feux follets", HS 139/5 [4:02]
Hungarian Rhapsody No 6 in D-flat major, HS 244/6 [6:22]
György Cziffra (piano)
rec. live, 16 September 1961, Théâtre municipal de Besançon, France
MELOCLASSIC MC1046 [75:12]

Cziffra was nearly 40 when he gave this recital in Besançon in 1961. It was nevertheless only relatively soon after he had been, in effect, discovered, after wartime privation, playing a regular job in a café in Budapest. Further studies led to recitals in the mid-50s before his breakthrough, his prizewinning performance at the 1955 International Liszt Piano Competition.

By 1961 he’d made his US debut in Chicago and had caused sensations in Paris, London and Vienna so by 1961 he was well set in his tumultuous early career. For all his reputation as a fire-breathing virtuoso, however, he had the honesty and the guts to challenge in interview Horowitz’s approach to Liszt, and he also demonstrated in his repertoire that he was attuned to the romantic complexities and ambivalences of Schumann quite as much as to the stormier roulades of his virtuoso repertoire.

So it proves in Schumann’s First Sonata, Op.11, which is compellingly resolved and beautifully textured. Where other hands can find difficulty negotiating the opening movement, Cziffra’s phraseology ensures seamless expressive continuity. Where some downplay or elide the sonata’s generous quotient of extrovert writing, Cziffra positively relishes the folkloric elements in the scherzo. Rhythms are beautifully sprung, and the result is full of both élan and charm and it’s in this context that the vivid bravura of the finale emerges the more strongly. As if this was not compelling enough Cziffra then unleashes an incendiary reading of the Toccata in C major

After the opening announcement, which is retained here, the recital had actually begun with Beethoven’s Seven Variations on God Save the King, offering numerous opportunities for dignity, reflection and drama. After the Schumann brace comes two examples of his Chopin. The first is a virtuoso reading of the Fantaisie in F minor, complete with ripe dynamic variations, decorative limpidity and sudden upsurges of explosive fusillades. After which the Polonaise in A flat major sounds almost restrained were it not for his habit of thickening the bass. Cziffra ends with trademark Liszt. There’s a scintillating Feux follets and a rhythmically voluptuous Hungarian Rhapsody No 6.

The recording quality is splendid as are the customarily excellent booklet notes by Michael Waiblinger. This notably fine recital shows the fire and the poetry at the heart of Cziffra’s art.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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