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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Georges Cziffra and Schumann Choral Works

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews previously unpublished Cziffra, a stunning new recording of music for cello and orchestra and Schumann choral works.

GRIEG: Piano Concerto in a minor, op. 16. Georges Cziffra, piano; with the French National Radio Orchestra conducted by Georges Tzipine (concert recording of 17 April 1959). LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat; Fantasy on Hungarian Themes, S. 123. Cziffra, piano; with the French National Radio Orchestra conducted by André Cluytens (concert recording of 12 March 1959).  LULLY: Gavotte en rondeau in d minor.  D. SCARLATTI: Sonata in D, K. 96. Cziffra, piano (recorded 20 January 1959 in Luxembourg). ica Classics ICAC 5079.

The labeling of the late pianist Georges (György) Cziffra as “controversial” really leads the attention away from this musician’s essential qualities — the events that shaped him and his way of making music, his strong creative proclivities and his essentially “clean” way of playing, the fate-tempting excursions into supervirtuosity such as ripping through Liszt’s Grand galop chromatique at a tempo probably not humanly possible (since Mr. Cziffra is no longer among us, it probably isn’t possible anymore).  Cziffra also played jazz and had the ability to improvise, which set him apart from most of his ilk. 

Cziffra’s entire life was marked by tragedy.  He was born in Budapest in 1921, the son of impoverished parents who had been living in France (a country which granted him full citizenship in 1968) before coming back home.  He learned piano by mimicking his sister, and could play back almost anything he heard. Not just that: he would elaborate on what he had heard.  His ability to improvise was thus developed before he could read music.  After a few years of performing with a circus (he started at five), he was admitted to Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy at nine.  He eventually became a victim of both Nazi and Communist oppression, enduring unbelievable torture — which necessitated, for the rest of his life, the use in performance of large leather wristbands to strengthen damaged muscles. In the 1970s  he set up a foundation to aid musicians in need (“no human being should have to go through what I went through”).  In 1981, Cziffra’s son Georges Jr. – a promising conductor, who had a few years before recorded both Liszt concertos with his father – committed suicide.  Cziffra himself died of a heart attack at 72.

Cziffra’s highly energetic, rhapsodic and totally masculine reading of the Grieg Concerto — marked by the Cziffra characteristics of a willingness to take risks and to get the very most out of the music — is a welcome addition to the catalogue, the compressed monaural sound of the 1959 concert recording notwithstanding.  Cziffra is not all bombast but — true to his reputation, and as is the case with all other sonic artifacts of his long career — a consummately tasteful pianist who knows every aspect of his instrument and how to exploit each one to the fullest.  He is just as much at home in the tenderest moments of Grieg’s writing as he is in the rhapsodic and heroic ones.  Being Georges Cziffra, of course, his octave passages and rapid filigree work are electrifying; the orchestra and conductor are in close partnership with him.  A soulful bassoon solo in the middle of the first movement is particularly effective—with more vibrato and presence than one would expect of an orchestral bassoon player—and bear in mind that this is a broadcast recording, and there are no mixing tricks to give the bassoon greater prominence.  The wonderful sense of fantasy and pianistic approximation of orchestral textures and a thrilling sense of the lower end of the piano in the cadenza of the first movement sound almost improvisational, like a more accurate Ervin Nyeregyházi.  By the end of the first movement, there’s no doubt that an Event is taking place.  The second movement is all tenderness, and that marvelous sense of the lower end of the piano returns in the finale.  Cziffra really understands Grieg.  He is getting the orchestra on his own level—a brief flute solo in the finale is on a par with the bassoon solo in the first movement.  He also has a sense of Grieg as he must have sounded as an extemporaneous player.  At the end, the audience cannot restrain itself.  Who can blame them?

The Liszt E-flat Concerto is Cziffra in his element.  Even in the limited-range monaural recording, the same sense of the bass of the piano—indeed, of all aspects of the piano—comes forth in vivid splendor.  The violin solo in the first movement, which Liszt directs to be played by two violins, seems to be done in accord with the composer’s wishes—in too many recordings, it is only one violin (perhaps the thinking behind this is that two are not necessary in a studio recording, and one has plenty of amplitude).  In the slow movement, Cziffra’s ability to change touch and tone as if on a whim is dazzlingly remarkable.  Even his prolonged trills and tremolandi are full of color and meaning, expressive rather than mere pyrotechnics.  His sense of delicacy and color in the scherzo (with triangle) is noteworthy.  This is musical virtuosity at its height.

The Hungarian Fantasia is a real demonstration of the pianist’s deep affinity for Liszt.  All of the above-mentioned Cziffra virtues are superabundantly present.  The orchestra responds to him as in the concertos, even though the first trumpet (at times) doesn’t seem to quite match Cziffra’s level.  Never mind: this is a performance for the ages, and it was indeed fortunate that it got recorded.  That it is not a stereo spectacular does not matter in the least.  It’s a spectacular, period.

The Lully and Scarlatti pieces included in this disc are from concerts, and quite possibly they are encores.  They bring to mind a critic’s reference to a Cziffra recording of the Mozart a minor Sonata, a “chaste rendering”—this reviewer has not heard it, but longs to hear it.  The well-known Scarlatti D-major Sonata is a virtuoso work, and there is no lacking of virtuosity in this performance—but there is more musicality and taste than virtuosity.  The Cziffra virtues of a sense of the piano’s lower end, of pyrotechnics like rapid repeated notes and embellishments of all kinds are all present here, and they are thrilling; but all of these are very much in the spirit of Scarlatti.  He gets a well-deserved hearty hand for each.


ELGAR: Cello Concerto in e minor, op. 85 (1919).  ELLIOTT CARTER: Cello Concerto (2001).  MAX BRUCH: Kol Nidrei, op. 47.  Alisa Weilerstein, cello; with Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle Berlin. Decca B0017592-02.

Elgar/Carter Cello Concerto, featuring Alisa WeilersteinElliott Carter will be all of 104 years old next month.  At last report, he was still going strong.  His eyesight is on the wane, and he says that he tries to avoid writing for large orchestra—which he did with consummate skill and an incredible sense of color and form.  His Cello Concerto is only eleven years old, and it is Carter at his best.  His aim in writing it was to “find meaningful, personal ways of revealing the cello’s vast array of wonderful possibilities”.  It begins with the cellist playing alone, almost in the style of a dramatic recitative.  Carter calls the cello line “a frequently interrupted cantilena” from which the entire work grows.  There are seven episodes rather than movements, all of which are played without interruption.  Though they are very different, all are very much related to each other and all serve as a build-up to the concluding Allegro fantastico.  Alisa Weilerstein is an unusually sympathetic artist who works with an unusually sympathetic conductor and orchestra.  This is not tonal music, but it has lyrical moments.  The whole atmosphere of the piece, as superbly realized here by all concerned, is one of great transparency and high musical interest.  The publicity leading up to the dissemination of this recording was in no way overstated. Weilerstein, who comes from a family of musicians, is an unashamed virtuoso—but she is a musician in the truest sense of the word. 

It was Alisa Weilerstein’s own idea to pair the Carter concerto, a work from the very beginning of this century, with the Elgar, a landmark work written toward the end of the second decade of the twentieth.  Some years ago, Daniel Barenboim asked Ms. Weilerstein to play through this work with him at the piano in a Carnegie Hall studio.  Then he asked her to play the work with him in Berlin.  It was Barenboim’s remarkable late first wife, Jacqueline du Pré, who introduced him to this concerto (her EMI recording with Sir John Barbirolli, made when she was barely twenty, is still considered definitive); this prompted Barenboim to master every score by Elgar, a composer up to then unknown to him, that he could.  Like the Carter, it begins with the cello alone—but it is a very different sort of work.  Soloist and conductor are completely at one here.  Weilerstein has all the equipment to offer a recorded performance rivaling the du Pré version — and it might be said that she has equaled or surpassed it.  She has a huge tone and an infinite variety of nuance, she can sing with bow and fingers; what is more, she is working with a conductor who has the same profound feeling for this work.  This is a stunning realization of Ms. Weilerstein’s resolve to find her own way through this work, du Pré and others notwithstanding. 

The Bruch Kol Nidrei, in the version with orchestra, receives a warm, highly atmospheric and no less sympathetic reading.  Barenboim has achieved his own pinnacle of a remarkable conducting career with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Weilerstein’s sumptuous tone contributes in no small measure to the overall success of this interpretation.  One hopes that more will be heard from this remarkable cellist, and from Mr. Barenboim and the Berlin musicians.  This is, without question, one of the year’s major recordings if not the major recording of the year.


SCHUMANN: Complete secular works for chorus, including the books of Romances and Ballads and works for men’s voices alone and women’s voices alone; Four Songs for Double Chorus op. 141 and many others. Werner Pfaff conducting Studio Vocale Karlsruhe, with various instrumentalists passimBrilliant Classics 94383: four CDs.

Schumann, Complete Secular Choral MusicMany of these items remain little-known and offer more than just a glimpse of another side of a very versatile and prolific composer—a man who lived to be only 46, a man who suffered from mental illness and did absolutely nothing during the last three years of his life.  Robert Schumann was one of the formidable musical minds of the nineteenth century, almost as prolific a critic as he was a composer. 

The great majority of these works are a capella; a few have piano accompaniment, and Zigeunerleben, the first of the op. 29 group, uses percussion in addition to the piano.  Many of the songs for male chorus stress the highest end of the tenor register, not unlike Schubert’s many essays in this same genre.  Most of the two books of Romances for female voices have a light piano accompaniment that is little more than a doubling and/or reinforcement of the vocal parts.  Soldatenbraut (Soldier’s Bride), the fourth of the op. 69 set, has an arresting ballad-like quality.  Schumann is an energetic composer but always a tasteful one: he has a fine sense of balance, and is careful not to overwhelm the women’s chorus with a lot of piano.  Ira Maria Witoschynskyi is the pianist for all numbers calling for piano, and in these pieces is careful to sound almost like a member of the choir rather than a supporting instrumentalist. 

The four songs for double chorus (op. 141) are more homophonic than contrapuntal and seem, in a way, to anticipate Brahms.  They offer varieties of mood, texture and timbre and are chamber music in the truest sense of the term.  The long pedal point in the last of the set, Talismane (the poem being by Goethe), is particularly effective.  All of these are unaccompanied.

As a bonus, three choral pieces by Schumann’s wife Clara are also included, and a reworking of one of Schumann’s choral songs by Johannes Brahms is thrown in for good measure.

The Karlsruhe ensemble has a clear and unforced tone with impeccable diction.  Pfaff and company have done themselves proud in this remarkable collection of neglected works by a major master.