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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
7 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 (1809-1849)
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]

In the post-war years, the Hungarian pianist György Cziffra (1921-1994) was famed as a virtuoso of formidable technical prowess, and as a deft improviser. His repertoire centred on Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann. Watching his sister practice the piano when he was a child set the wheels in motion. In 1930 he entered the Franz Liszt Academy and became a pupil of Ernő Dohnányi. In 1941 he was conscripted into the Hungarian Army. His unit was sent to the Russian front. He was captured by the Soviets and held as a prisoner of war. After the war he worked as a jazz pianist in Budapest’s bars and clubs, where he gained something of a reputation as a superb jazz pianist and virtuoso. He spent another period of incarceration between 1950-1953 after attempting to escape communist Hungary. He suffered serious injuries to his hands, but a subsequent period of rehabilitation enabled him to recover his technique. In 1956 he escaped with his wife and son to Vienna. He later settled in France, where he took French citizenship. He recorded a sizeable discography before he retired in 1986.

Here we have a live recital that György Cziffra gave on 16 September 1961 at the Théâtre municipal de Besançon. Most of the programme is the sort of repertoire the pianist favoured. Radio announcements bookend the recital, and audience applause is retained.

The programme opens with the attractive Variations on God Save the King by Beethoven. After a straightforward presentation of the theme, it undergoes as series of ingenious transformations. The fifth is dreamy, the sixth is spirited. It culminates with a variation of zest and brilliance.

Schumann's Piano Sonata No 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11 is the most substantial work here. Cziffra’s performance is utterly compelling, one of the finest I have heard. He fully taps into the Sonata’s expansive emotional range of passion, desperation, joy and elation. Yet, there is emotional fragility at its core. The composer’s C major Toccata is emblazoned with dazzling fireworks and unbounded energy. The audience sound suitably impressed in their enthusiastic response.

The Chopin selection begins with the Fantaisie, Op. 49. Cziffra brings a wealth of imagination to the work’s loosely-bound and quasi-improvisatory structure. The Op. 53 Polonaise is a work I do not particularly care for. Many performances I have heard degenerate into barnstorming, and Cziffra’s rendition likewise fails to buck the trend. One day I will discover a performance that convinces me of the work’s merits.

The pianist was firmly in his comfort zone in the music of Liszt. Feux follets sparkles and is fleet of foot. The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D flat major is one of the more popular ones, catchy, playful and good-humoured. Cziffra's inimitable style brings the concert to a successful conclusion with enthusiastic applause from those present.

In a recording dusted down from the archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF), the sound quality is exceptionally fine.

Stephen Greenbank

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