Georges Cziffra’s ‘tiny hot pearls’

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 07.03.2016

Pianist Georges Cziffra couldn’t believe his eyes when a young soldier delivered an upright piano to him on a military base in Hungary in 1942. The soldier called it “that little cupboard you tap on to make music – sorry, I don’t know the word for it.”

Cziffra, writing in his memoir Cannons and Flowers, recalled that he was already an established artist when conscripted in World War II, but his past was not generally known to army officers. Finally one of them realized who he was and requisitioned a piano for the entertainment of the troops. 

What floored Cziffra was not so much the officer’s gesture but the fact that the country of Franz Liszt and Béla Bartòk was still producing people who had never seen a piano and didn’t know what a bit of “tapping” could do.

By now, most Hungarians have probably seen a piano and the young soldier might even have an opinion on the country’s great gypsy and folk music traditions, captured and illuminated by Liszt and Bartòk, among others. As a performer, Cziffra virtually owned this music.

Despite the war, concentration camps, police harassment and physical injury, Cziffra – a battered survivor of war-torn Europe -- went on to become one of the 20th century’s greatest keyboard artists, displaying fingerwork and musical insight that still attract hundreds of thousands of admirers on YouTube and in the CD market. Some of his dazzling transcriptions and arrangements show up in recital programs. The range of his recorded repertoire – Couperin, Rameau, Bach, Scarlatti, Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, Ravel, Bartòk – is impressive.

Georges Cziffra as seen by the auhor, Michael Johnson

Cziffra died in 1994 at the age of 72 but his legacy seems in no danger of fading away. Besides a large fan base for his recordings, his memory is preserved in two annual events he launched. One of the principal summer music events in Europe, the Chaise-Dieu Festival in Auvergne, celebrates it 40th anniversary this year. It now attracts about 25,000 music-lovers and offers ten days of recitals and concerts. Reservations for the coming edition August 21-28 are being accepted from the public as of April 20.

And in Cziffra’s French home town of Senlis, near Paris, a low-key piano competition, dubbed the Senliszt Festival, is held annually in the Royal Chapel of Saint-Frambourg, a disused historic structure that Cziffra acquired and began restoring in 1973. In prior decades it had been defiled as a garage for wrecked cars. Cziffra imposed upon his friend Juan Miro to create and donate new stained-glass windows, and he personally financed repairs from his concert and recital earnings. It now serves as a popular venue for chamber music. The next piano competition, scheduled for November, annually attracts young talent from throughout Europe and Asia. The chapel restoration was one of his dearest sidelines and his lifelong objective was to encourage the development of young musicians.

Videos and remastered DVD recordings of his performances reveal a joy rarely seen in the stiff stagecraft of today. He smiles serenely and his eyes sparkle as his huge hands attack, tease and caress the keyboard. Glamorous piece such as La Campanella, Islamay, Le Grand Galop Chromatique, and his own transcription of Flight of the Bumblebee are exhilarating in their reckless abandon. He made a virtue of being, as he put it, “far away from the rigors of intellectual and musicological correctness”.

I have spent hours recently listening to all 40 CDs from the EMI boxed set (Georges Cziffra: Studio recordings 1956-1986). His talent for improvisation particularly stands out, as in the opening tracks of the first two CDs featuring Rossini’s La Danza, his own Romanian Fantasy and his paraphrase of Verdi’s Rigoletto. One YouTube video clip showing him in a casual seven-minute improvisational warmup backstage at the BBC has clocked 638,800 views.

Most of the current YouTube commentary from listeners is laudatory. “He is Franz Liszt reincarnated,” writes one. “Perfect balance of the gentle and ferocious,” says a pianist. “Was he human?” asks another.

New York critic and former Juilliard professor David Dubal wrote in his book The Art of the Piano that when he listens to many of Cziffra’s recordings he imagines “tiny hot pearls falling on the proverbial red velvet”. 

Cziffra’s career won him superstar status in France, Italy and Japan and somewhat lesser acclaim in Britain and the United States. Critical opinion always remained split among the experts, with purists faulting him for interpretive flights of fancy and for his unbridled enthusiasm. “By playing the great virtuoso pieces of the Romantic repertory in my own manner,” Cziffra wrote in his memoir, “I divided the profession. I became its Antichrist due to my improvisations, which multiplied the difficulties ten times over.”

Indeed, his ample use of rubato and variable tempi do not sit well with current concert practice but were the mark of artistic freedom and individuality in earlier times. His part-gypsy origins counted unfairly against him. Indeed his father had played cimbalom (a zither-like stringed instrument played with mallets) in a gypsy orchestra in Paris prior to World War I, and gypsy heritage was part of young Cziffra’s upbringing.

Was he up to the big romantic warhorses so often played today? Some detractors thought they detected problems in his search for the “arch” in large-scale pieces such as Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major Op. 53, the “Heroic”, or in Liszt’s B-minor sonata. Sorry, I don’t know what they are talking about. He was a master of both these pianistic monuments.

“Cziffra had that terrible label as a circus-virtuoso pianist,” recalls French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris in a 2012 interview. “There are very few people who are willing to speak openly about all the good things about him. I think this is absolutely insane...I am very, very shocked and angry, that for whatever stupid reason, he did not have a big career in the United States   and this is a big shame. Some piano fans there don’t even know his name.” 

Katsaris summed up his impressions thus: “He used his incredible virtuosity in an expressive way – whether it was revolt, whether it was anger, tenderness, or serenity. He was able to do so much with the wide range of whatever he played.” 

Leading pianists have paid homage to Cziffra’s superpianist talent.Vladimir Horowitz was one admirer. Katsaris recalls Horowitz’s speechless reaction when Cziffra’s name came up in conversation. “Ah … György Cziffra,” Horowitz said. Katsaris noticed “some kind of astonishment” in his facial expression. “He knew exactly who Cziffra was.” Fellow Hungarian Tamas Vasary recalled in an interview that he saw Cziffra playing in the 1950s in Kedves, a bar in Pest that is still going strong today, where “the cigarette smoke was so thick you could hang your coat on it”. Already a promising young pianist himself, Vasary was fascinated by Cziffra’s technique. “I tried to figure out what he was doing, he was so fast. But I could not follow his movements.” They became friends for the rest of Cziffra’s life. 

And Jacques Leiser, a former EMI executive who signed Cziffra in 1956 and brought him to international attention, recently described for me Cziffra’s special qualities: “His lyricism was sublime. He was much more than a mere virtuoso … he had incredible consistency.”

Also feeding the Cziffra memorial flame is a dramatic musical biography written and performed by Pascal Amoyel, a leading French pianist, writer and actor, a one-man show now making the rounds in European theaters. When I saw the production in Bordeaux recently I was touched by the tragic wartime detail, much of which was new to me. Amoyel mixes his narrative with some of Cziffra’s favorite Liszt and Chopin selections.

Amoyel knows his subject. He studied with Cziffra for eight years and remembers being not only astounded but “absolutely bewildered” when he observed Cziffra at close range. “I wondered, does he have four hands?” Amoyel titled his stage production “The Man with 50 Fingers”.

Cziffra displayed a spirited panache in his playing, injecting a sense of the grandiose in his symphonic transcriptions, and a delicate touch in his Debussy, Ravel and Daquin. In much of his work he achieves crisp articulation with sparse use of the pedal. Some of his showpieces burn up YouTube, notably Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes”, and ten of the Liszt “Hungarian Rhapsodies”.

Early on, he became identified with the entire Liszt oeuvre, although he often said Chopin was his favorite. His recordings of the Chopin Nocturnes, Etudes, Polonaises and concertos rank with the best, surpassing most of the young Asian virtuosos who tackle this demanding repertoire today. 

He loved playing the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and the two piano concerti, of which he made three separate recordings, each distinctive in its own way. One was from 1969 under the baton of his son György Cziffra Jr., and the Orchestre de Paris. Dubal has described Cziffra’s Liszt as generating “strange lighting, eerie shadows, lyric delicacies with a twist, and shimmering tones brought by way of ear and pedal combined to create newborn colors.”

French critic Jean-Charles Huffelé has credited him with reviving bits of the Liszt repertoire that had fallen into obscurity. “If it were not for Cziffra, the Tarantella di Bravura of La Muette de Portico would never have been heard in 20th century recitals,” Huffelé wrote in one appreciation. 

Cziffra demonstrated natural piano talent early, copying his sister’s keyboard exercises. His good ear propelled him so far so fast that he was helping with the family finances at age five by playing improvisations with a traveling circus. His talent developed steadily and led to acceptance at the Franz Liszt Academy at age nine, the youngest in history at the time.

Cziffra recounts in his memoir how the master classes with such pedagogues as Istvan Thoman (a pupil of Liszt and teacher of Bartok and Emö Dohnanyi) changed his perspective. “One was not taught how to play well but how to become a part of one’s instrument until the soul of the interpreter, visible to all, became the messenger of music.” Cziffra passed these lessons on to his own students later in his career. Amoyel remembers that studying with Cziffra was like a child growing up. “One was like a baby with him – he takes your little finger and teaches you how to walk, and finally you go off on your own.” Cziffra remained almost silent during lessons, he was so transfixed by the work at hand.

“He put all his love and suffering in the music,” says Amoyel. Cziffra was a highly strung artist, prone to tears even when looking at a flower. Leiser remembers his “warmth and consideration”. “He always asked, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’” 

And yet there was always a “huge hypocrisy” about Cziffra,” Katsaris recalled. Like Liszt himself, “these personalities are too big for the people of this planet. Liszt was too much, Cziffra was too much. So, yes, he was very aware of the fact that reviews … were saying he was more of a virtuoso than a musician, which was total bullshit – excuse me for saying that. But Cziffra suffered a lot because of that. It was wrong, wrong, wrong.” Amoyel also recalls that some critics relegated Cziffra to the category of “virtuoso banger”.

Considering his life, it is perhaps surprising that his sensitivity to great music survived. In 1942, at the age of 21, Cziffra was drafted into the Hungarian army, which was allied with the German-led Axis. He had just married when he was sent to the Russian front and there was captured and imprisoned in the GULAG for two years. He eventually escaped, was re-captured by the Russian army, then turned around and sent to the Western front to fight for the new communist Hungarian regime. He was demobilized 1946 when he took up his career again, initially playing in cabarets and cafés around Pest for minimal wages. 

An attempt to escape Hungary ended in his capture at the frontier and back he went into a labor camp for two years. He was put to work carrying 60-kilo blocks of stone up six flights of stairs on a construction site, permanently injuring his left hand. (As he later regained his keyboard technique, ligament problems obliged him to wear a leather wristband for the rest of his life.) Finally in 1956, during the chaos of the Hungarian uprising, he and his wife and son made their way to Vienna.

Ex-EMI executive Leiser recalls in his recently published memoir Musical Legends: An Impresario Looks Back,that his Vienna debut took place at the Brahms-Saal in the Musikverein in 1956 where he played works by Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber and Liszt. “Cziffra was unknown in Vienna,” Leiser writes, and was playing as a last-minute substitute for the Tátrai Quartet. Subscribers had no idea who he was!” 

His performance was so sensational that one review carried the headline “Franz Liszt has arisen from the dead”. The critic was so overwhelmed he called it “a demonic experience, eliciting the landscape and soul of Hungary like a vision in drama and transfiguration.” Leiser too was struck by this fresh talent. “After the recital I extended an invitation to him to record for EMI in Paris, which he accepted.” His career went from strength to strength as this new superpianist was recognized internationally. 

EMI knew they had a star on their hands, and purchased a house for him in the Paris suburbs. Without explaining the finances to him, the EMI management deducted mortgage payments from Cziffra’s royalties. “Within two years, as his records were selling incredibly, he had become the owner of the house without even knowing it!Today this would be unheard of,” Leiser wrote. 

The last few years of Cziffra’s life saw a decline in his powers due to heavy smoking, a weakness for alcohol, and the growing psychological effects of the death of his son at 41 in a 1981 apartment fire, an apparent suicide. Katsaris knew both father and son personally. “Since that time, Cziffra started going downhill. He suffered a lot. That was his only son.” 

Cziffra had built a dual career with the young Geörgy on the podium at concerts and in several EMI recordings. The EMI Classics DVD of the Liszt concertos includes a segment of father and son acknowledging wild applause at the end of the concert, a heart-rending scene when viewed today with the knowledge of how it all ended.


An edited version of this profile appears in the current International Piano magazine, London.

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