ERVIN NYIREGYHÁZI IN PERFORMANCE • Ervin Nyiregyházi (pn); Modest Altschuler, cond; Los Angeles Federal SO1 • MUSIC & ARTS 1202 (2 CDs: 151:19) Live: 1972–1982
BRAHMS Intermezzo in e?, op. 118/6. CHOPIN Mazurkas: in c?, op. 6/2; in b, op. 33/4; Read more class="ARIAL12b">in f, op. 63/2. Nocturne in f, op. 55/1. Prelude in c?, op. 28/10. DEBUSSY Estampes: Pagodes. La plus que lente. GRIEG Lyric Pieces, op. 54: Notturno. LISZT 2 Legends. Années de pèlerinage: Book I: Au lac du Wallenstadt; Book II: Sonetto 123 del Petrarca; Book III: Aux cyprès de la Villa d’este I. 2 Concert Etudes: Waldesrauschen. LISZT-NYIREGYHÁZI The Legend of St. Elisabeth: Excerpt. C. O. MACPHERSON Before the Dawn.1 RACHMANINOFF-NYIREGYHÁZI Piano Concerto No. 2: Mvt. 2. SCHUBERT-NYIREGYHÁZI Der Wanderer. Heidenröslein. SCRIABIN Piano Sonata No. 4. TCHAIKOVSKY Romance, op. 5. Waltz, op. 40/8
Pianophiles of a certain age may remember the furor created in 1977 when the International Piano Archives produced an LP devoted to Ervin Nyiregyházi, a pianist who had made a splash in the 1920s but who soon more or less disappeared from sight. The impact of that recording had a lot to do with Nyiregyházi’s sensational biography: his studies with Dohnányi and Lamond, his friendships with Theodore Dreiser and Gloria Swanson, his nine (that’s not a misprint) wives (there was one more afterward), the apparent self-destruction of his career, his years in a Los Angeles flophouse, his decision to return to performing in his seventies after decades of silence to pay for the medical needs of his ninth wife. You couldn’t make this stuff up, and if you did, you’d be accused of cheap melodrama. But much of the impact of the recording stemmed from Nyiregyházi’s iconoclastic playing, too—his huge dynamic range, his extreme tempos (sometimes, but not always, slow), his often staggering ability to vault across the keyboard, and his stubborn resistance to tradition. It’s this last quality, I think, that most marks Nyiregyházi’s playing—“marks” in the sense of “characterizes,” but also marks in sense of “scars.” More about that later.
With the help of a Ford Foundation grant, Gregor Benko, the head of IPA at the time, was able to convince Nyiregyházi to make a number of studio recordings. Some were issued by Columbia (including a two-disc Liszt collection that I panned way back in 2:3), but most remained unreleased, and Nyiregyházi disappeared from view once again. VAI issued a CD of Nyiregyházi performing his own opera fantasies a decade and a half ago (see 17:6)—and now, Music & Arts has given us this generous double album, including the two live Liszt Legends that anchored the 1977 LP (barely captured by inadequate amateur recording equipment), a number of other live performances (most, we’re told, previously unissued), and Nyiregyházi’s one commercial release (a movement from a work by Cameron O’Day Macpherson, recorded for broadcast by the Federal Music Project in 1936).
If you’ve heard Nyiregyházi before, you know what you’re in for: whatever you think about his playing, it’s not easy to forget. But if you’ve not, you need to be prepared not only for his string-snapping tone, but also for that rejection of tradition I mentioned earlier. It’s not simply that he doesn’t accept contemporary (or even then-contemporary) performance practice. Rather, he seems off in an interpretive universe of his own. Thus, his Chopin sounds no more like Paderewski’s, Micha?owski’s, or even de Pachmann’s than it does like Ashkenazy’s or Pollini’s. Rarely has the Brahms Intermezzo sounded quite this spiky and tumultuous; never, I suspect, has the middle movement of the Rachmaninoff (arranged for solo piano by Nyiregyházi himself) crawled by with such painstaking attention to detail. More than that, though, Nyiregyházi rejects the written tradition of the score itself, recasting the music with an abandon that often makes it difficult to tell whether he is misremembering what was there (he apparently played the Legends without having looked at the score for half a century) or whether he is instead reducing the original work to a mere template for his own meditations. Notes are changed, rhythms and dynamics altered (sometimes radically), gestures elaborated, textures fattened up, measures sliced out. This is primal playing with a vengeance: Nyiregyházi makes Volodos sound like Brendel.
Does it work? Much of the playing is astounding: the even and transparent trills that launch the first Legend (“St. François d’Assise”) are dazzling; his assault on the second movement of the Scriabin Fourth is, paradoxically, mesmerizing and thrillingly agitating at the same time, although only the most polite listener would call it even an approximation of the actual notes; the heightened rhetoric of “Aux Cyprès” grabs you by the throat, despite the almost scandalous disregard for Liszt’s rhythmic notation. At the same time, without the sensationalist back-story, much of the playing would be dismissed by most listeners out of hand: the somnolent reading of the Tchaikovsky Romance, with its oddly jagged middle section; the hard-hearted La plus que lente, without a trace of Debussian caress; the chain-saw attack that clear-cuts “Waldesrauschen.” If Richard Strauss gave us a rose of silver, Nyiregyházi, in his transcription of Schubert’s Heidenröslein, gives us one of lead. The textual alterations often seem unmotivated, even haphazard; and the welter of wrong notes will test the tolerance even of those comfortable with Cortot at his messiest.
And yet, we do, for better or worse, listen through that back-story—and unpleasant, hubristic, and self-indulgent as the playing is, in that context it remains an unforgettable memento of a man who must have been a great pianist at one time, as well as a testament to the capacity of the human spirit. The original recordings, from a variety of sources, are of varying quality, but they’re generally acceptable for collectors of historical pianists; the notes, by Kevin Bazzana—a former critic for Fanfare and author of a recent book about Nyiregyházi—are a model. All in all, essential for keyboard mavens, even though I doubt you’ll play it often.
excellentMay 25, 2012By rick souza See All My Reviews"If this was a vynal LP record, the item was in good shape. If it was a CD, the case was pretty much destroyed but the CD played all right. I am on vacation and I can't tell which I ordered from whom."Report Abuse
Like Nothing You've Ever HeardDecember 16, 2011By T. Drake (South Euclid, OH)See All My Reviews"By now, the story of Ervin Nyiregyhazi has become so legendary, it scarcely needs repeating: a child-prodigy on the level of Mozart and Saint-Saens, a spectacular Carnegie Hall debut in 1920, a career flameout soon thereafter, ten marriages, and decades of poverty before a short lived rediscovery in the 1970s. Nyiregyhazi's reemergence resulted in several recordings which were published in the 1970s and early 1980s. The recordings contained here include a few items from those albums and some privately recorded items which have circulated among collectors. Listening to Nyiregyhazi compels attention on several levels. First of all, he could play incredibly loud. Even at full volume, however, the tone is remarkably non-harsh. Nyiregyhazi freely doubles bass notes, so the melody is always floating on a cradle of rumbling lower notes. His tempi are slow (even by today's standards), and his playing is rhythmically free even when compared to 19th Century pianists such as Hoffman, Rachmaninoff and Paderewski. With Nyiregyhazi's approach, the printed text is merely a point of departure. His deviations from the score are so extreme even Vladimir Horowitz might have blushed. A case in point is Nyireghazi's "arrangement" of the second movement from Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto: whole sections are discarded, the composer's harmonic progressions are altered, and the final result bears little resemblance to Rachmaninoff's original. Technically, several factors are bothersome: there are fistfuls of wrong notes, at times the piano is simply being banged, the sustaining pedal is almost constantly held down. While fascinating to hear, it can be rather like watching a train wreck in progress: One just has to get out of the way. Probably the best playing here is Liszt's Au Lac de Wallenstadt: coherent phrasing and control over the lower levels of dynamics, all delivered with a melting legato. The other Liszt works (including the Légendes: No. 1 & 2 recorded at his "comeback" recital), also contain some fine playing. Scriabin's Fourth Sonata begins promisingly, but soon lapses into a mélange of wrong notes and technical desperation. As for Chopin, those raised on Arthur Rubinstein's interpretations will be in for a shock: Nyiregyhazi's tempos are not the norm for Mazurkas, and the Nocturne in F minor is almost glacial in its slowness. The 1936 recording offers a tantalizing glimpse of Nyiregyhazi before age and alcohol had impaired his playing. Perhaps as a result of playing a quiet piece with orchestral accompaniment, little of the Nyiregyhazi sound comes through, but there is greater rhythmic and technical control than in the later recordings. Most of these recordings were made by non-professionals while Nyiregyhazi played in the homes of enthusiasts or in small halls, so the sound quality varies. Judging by his other recordings I've heard, the dynamic range has been compressed somewhat, so Nyiregyhazi's fortissimos are not as astonishing as usual. Kevin Bazzana's liner notes make an unconvincing case for inducting Nyiregyhazi into pantheon of great pianists."Report Abuse