Medici Masters – Cziffra in Tokyo 1964

0 of 5 stars

Fantasy, Op.49; Scherzo in B flat minor, Op.31; Grande Valse brillante, Op.18; Valse brillante, Op.34; Impromptu in G flat, Op.51, Ballade in F minor, Op.52; Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Rhapsodie espagnole; Polonaise No.2; Grand Galop chromatique; Hungarian Rhapsody No.6

Cziffra (piano)

Recorded 23 April 1964 in Tokyo

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: March 2009
Duration: 80 minutes



laissez faire having gone seriously out of fashion. Yet he was a thinking musician and in 1975 formed Foundation Cziffra, which continues to support young musicians and artists. He died in 1994 from a heart attack resulting from complications from lung cancer, brought on by heavy smoking and drinking.

Cziffra, quite rightly, saw scores as a series of symbols that require emotional and intellectual interpretation. In this Tokyo recital this approach, combined with his mercurial temperament and stunning technique, come together to produce thought-provoking, eye-opening performances – you hear the music as if for the first time.

Chopin’s Fantasy opens at a flowing tempo, the left-hand chords slightly faster than the right-hand statement and extension of the theme, which is so complex that it can almost be seen to combine two subjects, which Cziffra highlights through rubato and phrasing. His transition to the second section is seamless and here there is complete lack of sentimentality, every strand of the theme beautifully delineated; the coda is immensely powerful at a measured tempo.

In the two Waltzes there are some wonderfully sprung rhythms and a ceaseless sense of invention. Rarely will you here the final page of the Grand Valse sound so much like a musical box and the concluding Mickey-take of the ‘Fate’ motif from Beethoven 5 delivered with such tongue-in-cheek wit.

In his informative, if rather non-committal booklet note, Bryce Morrison says of the Ballade, that Cziffra “stretches the parameters of what is considered acceptable far and wide”. I must have been listening to something different, because what you get is a magnificently inventive account of a masterwork. Every tempo change seems natural, every highlighting of inner parts and rhythms sounds spontaneous and the very difficult coda is effortless – a great performance!

As for the Polonaise, this is almost driven playing. Maybe the thought of an exile writing great, but blatantly nationalistic music, struck something with Cziffra. After all whenever he played he wore a feather wristband to remind him of his incarceration. Every note spits defiance and triumph. The central section is rhythmically intimidating at an incredibly fast tempo. The whole work is a masterclass in deeply felt pianism.

The Liszt half of the recital is less successful, simply because there is no relief from a torrent of technically mind-blowing virtuosity. By the end I felt punch-drunk. If only there was one or two reflective pieces, the effect would have been even more enthralling. What you get in this pre-Brendel age of Liszt-playing is disturbingly driven. Cziffra – like Horowitz – adds his own ornaments and decoration to make the music even more difficult and then despatches everything in almost note-perfect style. The last three minutes of the Spanish Rhapsody are quite magnificent and yet the lyrical interludes in the Polonaise are invested with considerable poetry.

Heaven knows what you say about Grand Galop chromatique. The speed and rhythmic precision are breathtaking. After the furious onslaught at the beginning of Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 Cziffra relaxes totally, but at 3’58” he is off like a train. As in the Chopin Polonaise, there is a very moving sense of defiance here and total belief and conviction. The virtuosity almost becomes insane!

The sound is excellent with very little distortion, loads of presence and a sense of acoustic space. This is an important release, which allows the listener to re-evaluate a neglected artist and should be an essential purchase for lovers of Chopin, Liszt and piano-playing per se.

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