Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat, S124
Hungarian Fantasy, S123
Gavotte en rondeau in D minor
Sonata in D, Kk96 (La Chase)
Georges Cziffra (piano)
Orchestre National de l’ORTF
Georges Tzipine (Grieg)
Concertos and Hungarian Fantasy recorded in Paris in 1959, on 14 April (Grieg) and 12 March; Lully and Scarlatti recorded 20 January 1959 in Luxembourg
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: October 2012
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5079
Duration: 70 minutes
Cziffra live is always an exciting prospect, and this ICA Masters disc certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Edvard Grieg’s glorious Piano Concerto opens with a huge opening flourish from Cziffra, who is massively patrician in the first subject, before accelerating alarmingly in the scherzando statement of the theme. He then luxuriates (with marvellously old-school rubato, rhythmic licence and tempo variation) in the second subject, and at each reappearance of these themes he varies the phrasing. Meanwhile Georges Tzipine and the very French-sounding orchestra (the euphonium-like horns are wonderful) are much faster and cleaner in the first subject and seem determined to counter Cziffra’s romanticism with some classical restraint. As to whether soloist and conductor agreed beforehand on this divergence of style is debatable, but the orchestra certainly provides a clear framework for the pianist’s improvisatory style that culminates in a staggeringly powerful performance of the cadenza, one of the few that equals Stephen Kovacevich (then Bishop) with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (originally on Philips).
The slow movement is taken at a flowing tempo, but the orchestral introduction is too loud (although the recording’s limited dynamic range may be to blame) and lacking in sensitivity and much the same can be said of the Cziffra’s playing. There are some beautiful touches, but the playing isn’t truly felt until the final bars. Sometimes Cziffra can seem insanely driven. There are elements of this in the finale with its five episodes. None of the tempos are extreme, but in both the first and second subjects there is a disquieting underlying sense of tension and menace and the jarring attack and agogic ritardandos will not be to everyone’s taste. However the phrasing in the slower second section is exceptionally refined and beautiful and it is difficult to imagine the brief cadenza that introduces the first part of the coda being done better. The coda proper (with the flattened leading note that Liszt so loved) is exhilaratingly fast and crisp, and the huge peroration (where the second subject becomes almost Brucknerian) is slower, with the orchestra – and brass in particular – exulting, as Cziffra – without any degradation of tone, or sense of effort – goes to ffff; unsurprisingly the audience starts to applaud half-way through the final chord.
Franz Liszt’s very concise First Piano Concerto finds Cziffra and André Cluytens in complete agreement over tempos. The opening Allegro maestoso initially emphasises the ‘maestoso’ part of the marking, but – in amongst the inevitable, and entirely convincing, tempo variations – the speed gradually gets faster. Cziffra ‘sings’ the slow movement (rubato again beautifully judged) although he doesn’t quite match Richter in the concluding trills. Few pianists though could hope to match the Mendelssohnian delicacy of touch and fantasy in the scherzando-like Allegro vivace, where the theme’s three-bar statement in octaves over tenths is immediately repeated and played with completely different weight and tone by Cziffra; this really is breathtakingly magical pianism. Though here the woodwinds do sound rather provincial, and the string-tone is rather thin. The finale recalls themes from the preceding three movements and one suspects that any modern Professor of Piano at a prestigious Academy would have the vapours if they heard a student play as Cziffra does. He distorts the rhythms, constantly changes tempo, and goes completely – and quite gloriously – OTT. Time and again I found myself smiling at the sheer audacity and élan of the playing.
The Hungarian Fantasia isn’t so successful. Cziffra, like most other virtuosos, saw the piece as an entertaining, but rather shallow, display piece, and from that point of view his performance is suitably showy. Unfortunately all performances of this work need to be judged against Solomon’s definitive 1948 account with Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Unlike everyone else Solomon takes the piece seriously, while still producing some of the most gorgeous trilling ever recorded, and playing the entire final section prestissimo (as marked).
The pieces by Lully and Domenico Scarlatti act as perfect palate cleansers, and are given restrained, crystalline performances, but the tempo variations in the Scarlatti will no doubt horrify those addicted to sterile authenticity and ‘good taste’.
In terms of annotation, neither the name of the halls or tape source, are mentioned. Sound-wise, in the two concertos the piano is very prominent, and particularly in the Grieg the bass can be almost over-poweringly sonorous. There is also some midrange blurring and congestion in the Liszt Concerto, which isn’t quite as prominent in the Fantasy, but orchestral detail and clarity is very good in the Grieg (the woodwinds have real presence and bite). Inevitably the orchestral image is narrow and one cannot help but feel that the use of ambient imaging would have been beneficial. Pitch stability is excellent and there is virtually no wow and flutter, which might indicate that stabilisation software has been used.
In general terms though there is nothing to seriously distract from the huge pleasure that these performances give.