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Georges Cziffra: Cziffra in Prague

img  Tobias Fischer

He wore the scars of his past like badges of honour. In 1950 George Cziffra, after a failed attempt at leaving autocratic Hungary, had been sent to prison camp where his torturers, cruelly aware of his musical talents, deliberately harmed his hands and forced him to carry gigantic blocks of stone. The inhumanly strenuous work eventually led to an overstretching of his fingers' ligaments - physical and psychological injuries which would accompany him for the rest of his life. And yet, the system could only break his body, not his spirit. Cziffra supported his arms and hand with a leather wristband, withdrew into a cocoon of frenetic training and finally made a triumphant return to the stage that defied belief. His performances were widely regarded as creative equivalents of religious rituals, as supernatural experiences, in which the logic and borders of physics were seemingly stretched far beyond their conventional limits. Cziffra's comeback had something of an inverse-Faust'ean ring to it: Rather than selling his soul to the devil, he had escaped the claws of terror on the strength of his ongoing faith and belief in his mission.

When, in 1955, he entered the studio to document the pieces contained on this disc, he was no longer in prison yet still a captive, escape constantly on his mind. And yet, he was already a star, audiences literally fainting at hearing his tempestuous runs through the centuries. If the repertoire of Cziffra in Prague, divided into a first half featuring late baroque and pre-romantic composers and a second one leaning on the rhapsodic visions of Franz Liszt, does not seem to formed by any kind over clever, overarching concept, then that is because there is none. These vintage recordings, gently polished with a novel technique called ambient remastering, were simply the sum and summary of his concert programs, the showstoppers so to speak, the pieces with which he drove his listeners to ecstasy.

They weren't the only ones – reports of his performances of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's „Flight of the Bumblebee“ and Robert Schumann's "Carnival Scenes from Vienna" have remained the stuff of legends to this day – but they were without a single doubt among the most effective: It is easy to see what the appeal of the „Andantino cantabile“ of Christian Phillipp Emanuel Bach's (the eldest son of Johann Sebastian, whose career, at his time, involved engagements at the Prussian court and thereby easily eclipsed his father's) Sonata in B minor is at the leather-strapped hands of Cziffra: Closely adhering to Bach's (at the time innovative) concept of channeling feeling through sound, every repetition and variation of the main melody can be considered as providing a fresh perspective on its emotional content. None of these pieces was, of course, originally composed for the piano, but rather than treating them to a puristic no-pedal approach or subjecting them to a kind of retro-style innerlichkeits-treatment, in which the character of the music is inevitably transformed, his interpretation can be described as taking the basic outlines of the originals and then lifting them to a not just aesthetically but creatively new plain.

The main tool at his disposal to achieve this transformation was his stunning speed of hand. Some of the passages in the closing stages of the Rhapsodie espagnole almost sound as though they were performed by a player piano in their vertiginous tempi and metronomic precision. In the Scarlatti-sonatas, meanwhile, Cziffra combines a slender tone and graceful fluidity with unparalleled athleticism, which makes some of these already poignant pieces just barely exceeding the two minute post seem like muscular miniatures. It is here that one realises that the general view of instrumental technique as a hollow form of self-presentation is in need of revision. It is not despite their virtuosity that the music lifts off here, but only because of it and these displays of strength (some of the lower-range octaves can occasionally seem as Cziffra were trying to cut through the metal of the strings with the piano's hammers) and agility only grow more stunning on repeat listens.

This is especially true as Cziffra's technique doesn't just cover the field of speed and strength, but also extends into the realms of timbre. In the Hungarian Rhapsody, his right hand arpeggios almost turn into shimmering impulse drones and on the C.P.E. Bach sonata, some of his high notes sound almost like droplets of ice. The reason why his mastery seems so perfectly at home here, regardless of whether he is dabbling his feet in 17th or 19th century literature, is because virtuosity is what combines the otherwise starkly different world views of these composers: Scarlatti, who was known as a dazzling soloist on the clavichord himself (until his late years, when, as rumour has it, he had grown too voluptuous as to be able to touch the keyboard), would doubtlessly have marveled at the Hungarian's performance of his famous Sonata KV 159. Liszt, to whom Cziffra was frequently compared both because of his no-regrets-lifestyle and animal magnetism on stage, likewise spent years in seclusion, financially supported by the monetary donations of his lover, creative muse and mentor princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, in a bid of matching on his instrument the kind of technical marvels premiered by Paganini, whom he had once seen as a little boy and which had come to set the course of his entire life.

Virtuosity to these men never just meant stunning their audiences (although, in the light of their highly lucrative careers as live performers, this must have played an essential role as well), but to use novel performing devices as a means of taking their audiences to places they'd never seen or heard before – or considered outright Utopian. It is this quality which Cziffra's playing evokes in these pieces and the moment when the danceable groove of Couperin is pulverised by the monolithic opening chords of the Rhapsodie espagnole is not one of stylistic contrasts but spiritual elevation, in which time and space fold back on themselves. History will undoubtedly have played its part in finding these links and points of contact, but he may not have needed to go back quite that far in time. Perhaps he was simply thinking about his own run for freedom and how only absolute and uncompromising resolve could lead him through the door signed „exit“ and into a new life.

Eventually, of course, he would have to face another exit. Cziffra died in 1994, from the complications of a tumor in his lung brought about by excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption. He will not have looked back on his fate in anger. This time, after all, the wounds were of his own devising.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: ICA Classics

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