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Ervin Nyiregyházi (piano)
Live. Volume 1: The Century Club of California 1972
rec. 17 December, 1972 at the Century Club of California, San Francisco
SONETTO CLASSICS SONCLA002 [47:33 + 73:44]

The booklet note writer of this 2CD set is Kevin Bazzana, author of a biography of the Hungarian-American pianist and composer Ervin Nyiregyházi entitled ‘Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick’. For those, like myself, encountering this pianist for the first time, Bazzana’s liner makes for a fascinating read. Nyiregyházi was born in Budapest in 1903 of musical parentage, and began piano lessons aged five. His prodigious gifts were recognized early on by psychologist Géza Révész who observed him from the age of six to twelve and later published a book about him ‘The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy’. Like Menuhin, his earning potential as a gifted wunderkind led to him being exploited by his parents, and this parental domination and control may have sown the seeds of his later determination to assert his individuality and go his own way. It’s worth mentioning that he could claim a distinguished pedigree, as his teachers included Ernő Dohnányi and Frederic Lamond.

After making an initial impact on the concert stage in the 1920s, including a Carnegie Hall debut, he descended into relative obscurity. It seems his career was mismanaged, and this was compounded by stage fright and the struggles he encountered in coping with professional and domestic life. For a time he was destitute and slept rough. He was voracious sexually and married ten times. Stories and anecdotes abound, but the most intriguing are two documented in the notes. The first relates to a concert he gave in 1946, where he disguised his identity with a black hood and billed himself as Mr X. The second concerns one of his wives, whom he divorced after only a few months because she yawned during Beethoven. In the 1970s he made something of a comeback. Between 1972 and 1984 he made several studio recordings and performed some private concerts of which this recital from The Century Club of California, dated December 17, 1972, is the focus of our attention here.

The return to concert-giving after a long fallow period revealed a technique that had “deteriorated from age and neglect”. I’m surprised that in this Century Club recital he didn’t break himself in gently, rather he decided to go for broke with the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3, a grandiose work in five movements. It’s given a larger-than-life performance with plenty of personality. Blazing, courageous virtuosity, thunderous fortissimos, rhythmic dislocations and audacious bravura make this one of the most exciting performances of the work I’ve ever heard, real edge-of-seat stuff. Yet, Nyiregyházi’s sense of fantasy in some way carries the day. The two slow movements, eloquently sculpted, have an autumnal introspection and provide some much needed balm.

A “hero figure – proud, independent, self-sufficient, indifferent to acclaim and defiant in the face of criticism” was how Nyiregyházi viewed Liszt, and the composer forms the bulk of the pieces on CD 2. Aux cyprčs de la Villa d'Este – Thrénodie I is potent in its funereal gloom. Les Jeux d'eaux ŕ la Villa d'Este looks forward to the pianistic water-music to come of Ravel and Debussy. Nyiregyházi’s brush strokes add a panoply of colourful sonorities to this radiant canvas. The Mephisto Waltz is a good example of Nyiregyházi’s penchant for doctoring a piece and tailoring it to suit his own agenda. It’s an intuitive approach of a bygone era, after all he always said that he was born in the wrong century. I followed the Mephisto Waltz performance with the score and discovered that he alters note values and timings of pauses. He rewrites passages e.g. the scale passage between bars 165-172 he simplifies with chords, and the glissando passage at bar 202 is notably absent. I noted instances of doubled melodies and passages moved up or down. More attractive is Au Lac de Wallenstadt which is spellbinding and fervent, whilst Waldesrauchen is awash with vivid hues.

The three Chopin mazurkas are all in minor keys. Each is draped in melancholy, and to each Nyiregyházi applies teasing rubatos which, to my mind, add to the allure. He considered sentimentality played an important role in Chopin’s music, He applies it so subtly, taking care not to overstep the mark and descend into kitsch. The Brahms Intermezzo in E flat minor tells of sombre resignation. Debussy’s ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes, a great favorite from his past concert days, is delicately exotic and well-projected. His wide colouristic range serves this impressionistic music well.

As these are live recordings, applause has been retained, which further aids the listener to savour some of the atmosphere of the occasion. The Nyiregyházi archive was acquired by Sonetto Classics, London in 2016. The digital remastering of these reel-to-reel tapes has been expertly achieved by Andrew J. Holdsworth and producer of this valuable project Tomoyuko Sawado. The sound is very good indeed for the age and provenance of the recordings, and the volcanic fortissimos are perfectly accommodated without sounding distorted. Bazzana’s scholarly annotations, in English and Japanese, are illuminating and supply all the required information for first-timers like myself. The experience has been a roller-coaster ride.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1
Sonata No. 3 [47:33]

CD 2
Années de Pčlerinage, Troisičme Année No. 2, "Aux Cyprčs de la Villa D'Este, Thrénodie" (No. 1: Andante) [8:04]
No. 4 "Les Jeux D'eaux ŕ la Villa D'Este." [7:11]
Années de Pčlerinage, Premičre Année, Suisse: No. 7, "Églogue." [3:28]
Mephisto-Walzer (Der Tanz In Der Dorfschenke): Episode Aus Lenau's Faust. [10:41]
Mazurka In C-sharp Minor, Op. 6 No. 2. [4:42]
Prelude In C-sharp Minor, Op. 28 No. 10. [0:47]
Mazurka In F Minor, Op. 63 No. 2 [2:38]
Mazurka In B Minor, Op. 33 No. 4. [6:21]
Intermezzo In E-flat Minor, Op. 118 No. 6. [6:31]
Estampes: No. 1, "Pagodes." [5:00]
Années de Pčlerinage, Seconde Année, Supplément: Venezia E Napoli: No. 3, Tarantella Da Guillaume Louis Cottrau (Presto E Canzone Napolitana). {8:02]
Années de Pčlerinage, Premičre Année, Suisse: No. 2, "Au Lac de Wallenstadt." [3:45]
Zwei Konzertetüden: No. 1, "Waldesrauschen." [6:34]

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