Monday, 29 August 2011

Sunday night was.... Cziffra playing Liszt

Gyorgy (Georges) Cziffra playing Liszt's "Grand Galop Chromatique," in E-flat major S. 219.

It is well worth reading the Wiki entry for the summary of Cziffra's life, for example:

Georges Cziffra was born into dire poverty in 1921. Before he was born, his parents had been living in France. During World War I the French government expelled all residents whose countries of origins were fighting against France. Cziffra's father, a Hungarian citizen, was imprisoned and his mother was forced to move to Budapest with her two daughters and only five kilograms of luggage. She was billeted into a single room built on stilts above a marsh, where the Cziffra family would live for years. His father was released from prison and Georges arrived some time later.

His earliest training in piano came from watching his sister practice. She had decided she was going to learn the piano after being lucky enough to find a job which allowed her to save the required amount of money. As she practised, Georges, a weak and often ill child, watched from his makeshift bed in fascination. When he felt strong enough, he would try to mimic his sister, and became greatly enthusiastic about the sounds he could make. He learnt without sheet music, but by asking his parents to sing him tunes and playing them back, improvising additional material as he became more adept.

By the time he was five he attracted the attention of a travelling circus who hired him as the star of their show, and his improvisations (on tunes suggested by the audience) were very successful. This involvement with the circus at an early age (and for only a few weeks) was to haunt the rest of his career, as some critics used it as an example of his poor musical heritage and low taste, while others saw in it a remarkable and prodigious talent.

Cziffra came to mind because of a conversation in the car. We had picked up Elspeth Barker and Bill Troop from their house in Itteringham and drove them to Voewood where Elspeth was quite magnificent, reading from the coming book and answering questions in her devastatingly droll fashion. Afterwards we took Elspeth and Bill to Amanda and Nick's party (Nick's second birthday party) then all the way back home to Itteringham. All very social, darling, and quite untypical but in view of the people involved, very nice.

At Voewood Bill had found the grand piano and gave a brilliant, brief, and quite unofficial concert to himself and to anyone else in earshot. I think he was playing Liszt and Chopin. And that is how Cziffra got into the conversation. Later, in the car, I mentioned the Liszt radio programme I was taking part in and Bill suggested that Cziffra was the finest Liszt exponent. This is not the conventional view among pianists for precisely the reason given in the last sentence of the Wiki extract above: "[S]ome critics used it [Cziffra's circus experience] as an example of his poor musical heritage and low taste, while others saw in it a remarkable and prodigious talent."

There are several cans of worms embedded in the distinction between poor and low on the one hand and remarkable and prodigious on the other. I have no authority to pronounce on music, except in the most everyday sense of knowing what I like and being prepared to like a lot more. But how to distinguish between snobbish connoisseurship and the idea of grace? How to tell the difference between brutal, sentimental self-display and rampant, brilliant vigour? How far is it a question of social class and social exclusiveness, the psychological rule of the over-refined over the earthy, of the cold intellect's disdain for the passionate? Or, to turn things round, the impatience of the grossly sentimental to have done with fine distinctions, the brute materialist's abhorrence of philosophical or spiritual terms?

Tonight we expect a rare visit (the second to be precise) from László Krasznahorkai who is staying over this night, tomorrow, and tomorrow night before returning to Hungary from Edinburgh.


Anonymous said...

Cziffra had a full training, first with a teacher in Budapest and then at the Liszt Academy, notable under Istvan Thoman, Arrau's teacher, until the age of eighteen, so that adverse criticisms of his playing were based on ignorance and snobbish prejudice. His remarkable ability to improvise, which he maintained all his life, is particularly effective in Liszt's 'Hungarian Rhapsodies' for which Liszt specifically requested an improvisatory approach, being himself a prodigious improvisor, despite not having been particularly "high-born".

Anonymous said...

P.S. For 'notable' please read 'notably' and for 'improvisor' 'improviser'.
With apologies.

George S said...

Thank you, Frank. I knew about the musical training (it's there in the Wiki article too). I am always bemused when it comes to arguments about refinement versus vulgarity - as in fact the blog says. My usual response is that there is more than one way to skin a cat and that life continues interesting either way. The fact that there is only one Cziffra immediately makes him valuable.

Tim Cockburn said...

Elspeth was extraordinary. It was devastating and serene at the same time. And with the train whistles and wind! I loved the Q&A too. See you in Wymondham.