ICA Classics – Cziffra in Prague 1955 and in Turin 1959

0 of 5 stars

C. P. E. Bach
Sonata in B minor – Andantino cantabile
Domenico Scarlatti
Sonatas – in F, Kk446; in C, Kk159; in A, Kk533; in G, Kk284
Couperin
Pièces de clavecin, Book 2: Les Moissonneurs
Liszt
Rhapsodie espagnole
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in C sharp minor
Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H*
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – Funérailles*

Cziffra (piano)

Recorded in Prague 1955 *and in Turin on 22 January 1959


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: February 2011
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC5008
Duration: 64 minutes

International Classical Artists (previously Van Walsum) is perhaps best-known as a management agency. Its new Legacy label, CDs and DVDs, concentrates mostly on live recordings. This Cziffra disc features two Liszt items from a 1958 Turin concert and a rare 1955 Supraphon LP. The main point of interest is the baroque composers, whom Cziffra (his surname was sufficient in his playing days) is not associated with.

First though consideration needs to be given to ‘ambient mastering’. You would hope that all due care-and-attention was taken in the re-mastering process, so it is rather surprising to find that there are varying degrees of pitch fluctuation on the vinyl-derived tracks, which becomes wearying to listen to. One can only assume that the original LP (from a private source) was a bad pressing. Early Supraphon LPs tend to have substantial distortion at the beginning and end of sides and wow-and-flutter elsewhere, but few have this level of distortion. There is also a hint of over-aggressive filtering, which becomes excessive on the live tracks, and when played on high-quality equipment, the sound is slightly dead on the Prague tracks and veiled on the Turin items.

With regard to ‘ambient mastering’ – which has been championed by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio – the recording’s original ambience is isolated and expanded and the sound image enlarged to fill that space. The results can be startling, especially on 24-bit Flac downloads, which, for analogue-derived material, are far removed from horribly compressed MP3 files) – but even 16-bit (CD quality) downloads aren’t available from ICA, which is disappointing. Without hearing the original LP it is difficult to judge whether the instrument’s image has been improved, but it certainly sounds more like HMV ALP 1446 (Cziffra playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies) than a product of the Soviet bloc, whose recording technology was somewhat limited. The sound from the live concert is much fuller than is the norm.

Mention is made in the booklet note of the “less than ideal instrument provided for this recording”, but it is difficult to decide how much of its thin, clangourous sound (at the start of Rhapsodie espagnole it comes perilously close to sounding like a pub Joanna!) is down to the piano and how much to the original recording.

There is though nothing that seriously detracts from the performances, which are fascinating because they show a rather different Cziffra to that encountered in say Tokyo in 1964 (Medici Arts) in that the performances are less driven. His playing of the slow movement from C. P. E. Bach’s Sonata in B minor is refined, with gentle rubato and minimal use of the pedals. The first of the Scarlatti sonatas (Kk446) is very slow, with subtly varied touch, dynamics and what sounds like an added bass octave at the end. Kk159 dances by with beautifully soft finger-work, the A major work is very fast with strong hints of Bach, and the final sonata is emphatically phrased. Couperin’s Les Moissonneurs (The Reaper) is a short rondo and Cziffra makes it bounce along, with each section given a different character. On this evidence one can only regret that Cziffra did not – unlike Horowitz – record more Scarlatti and also essay Bach.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to Liszt. Rhapsodie espagnole is a minute longer than the manic performance given in Tokyo. But there is still enormous power and attack and each section is very strongly characterised. The Second Hungarian Rhapsody is based on a czardas and receives a beautifully nuanced performance, the lassú section very slow and languorously expressive, the faster friska episode has exceptionally clear articulation, and the coda is a tour de force.

Some four years later, Cziffra was on tour in Italy, where in Turin he gave a substantial recital devoted to Liszt. Given that there are only two tracks on offer here, you do wonder if the rest of the recital was recorded. Unfortunately, one piece is misattributed: the work is not the advertised Bach Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (BWV542), as transcribed by Liszt, but Liszt’s original composition, Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H, here in the composer’s arrangement for piano of organ piece. This magnificent creation is given a powerful, but too literal performance. Alfred Brendel made the definitive recording of it in 1977 (for Philips) and he underlines the heavily chromatic nature of the piece and its stark monumentality in a way that Cziffra – for all of his virtually note-perfect virtuosity – cannot equal.

The disc concludes with Funérailles in which the massive, tolling, opening bass chords are delivered with power and the ensuing chant-like melody has great simplicity and inwardness. The faster episode that interrupts this reverie is strict and suitably martial, the octave climax is powerful, and the return of the first section is suitably elegiac – and yet something is missing. If you turn to Horowitz in 1950 (BMG) this is more clearly a funeral march, the climax is terrifyingly intense, and nowhere is there the suspicion that virtuosity is being used for anything other than expressive purposes. What remains most in the memory of this Cziffra release are the Baroque pieces.

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