Message to All Pianists

Jonathan Bellman

My attention has been directed, recently, to a YouTube link that shows piano Übervirtuose Marc-André Hamelin playing his own version of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, which seems faithful to the score for most of it, but then adds various kinds of material towards the end. The same artist can be seen playing the Tenth Hungarian Rhapsody and the Thirteenth Hungarian Rhapsody. Now, I have spent a good deal of time studying the Hungarian-Gypsy idiom that these pieces were written to evoke, and the performance practices associated with them, so—after I was done applauding and laughing for sheer joy in my front of my computer—I resolved to comment.

Pure style hongrois, Hungarian-Gypsy inflection? Not quite. Hamelin begins with some nice characteristic rhythmic inflections, but gradually transitions into a kind of pure pianism, the sort of joy of display that very, very few people can ever experience because chops like that are so rare. To witness it, and the same with the other two Hungarian Rhapsodies, low-resolution quality and all, is to exult, even for those of us who at one time aspired to chops like that and fell short. But then there’s the link to the young Gyorgy Cziffra playing the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody.

Cziffra has always interested me because he was, to my knowledge, the only superpianist to play the style hongrois repertoire who was actually of Hungarian-Gypsy descent. In this version, we get the Real Thing: furious virtuosity, rhythmic flirtation, arbitrariness etc., but with an entirely characteristic accent. Does this make him the last word in style hongrois performance?

Yes, or no. Cziffra once released a recording of most of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances in his own blisteringly difficult and wickedly witty transcriptions. The record’s provocative title was Message à tous les pianistesMessage to All Pianists (no longer available, sadly). What could be more appropriate to this repertoire than that kind of defiant strut, an open challenge to other Knights of the Keyboard (that phrase is Liszt’s formulation, I think)? Be it said, on that recording Cziffra seems to speak more fluent Pianist than Gypsy; the arrangements are based less on Hungarian-Gypsy accent and inflection than on the Pianist’s Art: a glittering athleticism that both exploits and far exceeds the understood limits of ten fingers, eighty-eight keys, and the myriad variables of the piano’s mechanism.

Which is better? I’d prefer to have both: pianists who seek a characteristic Gypsy flavor and those who revel in pure pianism. Neither is achieved without blood and sweat, frustration and perseverance, and joy in accomplishment. I guess I’m thinking about it because the pianists who seem to garner the most media attention never seem to me to have all that much to say. Anyone who has ever been in a conservatory or conservatory-type program hears a heck of a lot of playing of extremely high competence, and after a while it is not in and of itself sufficient. I never seem to hear enough really interesting playing, though, by people who have strong musical personalities, which is why I’m having a hard time containing my glee at Hamelin and Cziffra.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the others. Do click on these links, then, and ask yourself if these kinds of pianism are just everyday or really are extraordinary. Getting to where one can stand where these pianists stand is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but—for me at least—there’s a kind of pure joy in accomplishment of this kind of stratospheric level.

Then, friends, back to your pianos, guitars, violins, banjos, clarinets, and choir practice. It is at least in part a negation to love music only as a spectator sport.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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1 Response to Message to All Pianists

  1. Mistifica says:

    I am happy to read all this succes: you deserve it completely. Proud to work with you in Boston, next june. Please, take all the good thoughts streaming from my heart to you…

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