György Cziffra and Walter Gieseking

Cite this article as:

Mark Ainley. (November 5, 2021). György Cziffra and Walter Gieseking. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 13, 2024.

This feature is being published on the birthday of two great pianists of very different sensibilities, providing an opportunity to explore some of the varied styles of pianistic and interpretative mastery. Both of these artists were masters of their craft yet are justly known and recognized for distinct reasons, both worthy of respect and admiration for their individual approaches.

György Cziffra

Hungarian pianist György Cziffra, born November 5, 1921 (100 years ago!), is still considered by some to be an almost freakish virtuoso who put his impressive technical pianistic command before the musical content of the works he played, but nothing could be further from the truth. The stunning virtuosity heard in the most demanding works may give that impression to some (bolstered the fact that he improvised at the piano in an actual circus when he was a child); however, his performances of both showpieces and more ‘serious’ works reveal a master musician of extraordinary sensibility.

Witness, for example, the fluid and elegant phrasing, gorgeous tonal colours, marvellous pedalling, and a host of other refined touches in this filmed BBC account of Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Major K.101:

Anyone observing that performance can surely recognize Cziffra’s extraordinary sensitivity and tasteful pianism. Alas, the fact that a few major critics have over the years cast aspersions on his artistry seems to have led to many holding similar views, despite much recorded evidence of his exquisite music-making. His virtuosic performances certainly are dazzling and exciting but are not nearly as brusque as some have suggested, featuring volcanic intensity for which other pianists are praised while also being more intelligently thought-through than many a performer. Cziffra had a particular affinity for the works of his compatriot Liszt, bringing to his readings idiomatic inflection while also going above and beyond the technical demands of the works and adding a few personal touches, as was commonly done in the composer’s lifetime.

This filmed interpretation of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 is a perfect example of his mastery of this idiom as well as his technical proficiency. The lyrical sections are played with truly natural timing, reflecting the folkloric nature of the musical content, while the pianist’s virtuosity is simply jaw-dropping. Indeed, Cziffra’s dexterity needs to be seen as well as heard to be believed, some of his feats being almost impossible to fathom. Prepare yourself for the rapid-fire repeated octaves in the closing section and remember that you are witnessing a fully unedited performance; if you didn’t see his hands moving with such speed with your own eyes (especially in the last minute), you might not believe that he was really playing it that way!

To close this brief tribute to this great pianist on his centenary, a magnificent filmed 1965 account of Franck’s Variations symphoniques that was played in Paris with the pianist’s son conducting. Notice how beautifully Cziffra lingers over melodic phrases, without any cloying effects of timing or sentimental exaggeration. There is not a harsh moment in the entire work — nothing but exquisite, sensitive, musical pianism… the work of a master.

Walter Gieseking

German pianist Walter Gieseking was born November 5, 1895 and played a huge range of repertoire, from Baroque through to contemporary music. While well-known for his traversals of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, he is especially celebrated for his readings of French Impressionist repertoire, his Debussy cycle from the 1950s in particular having almost never been out of the record catalogue. This reading of La soirée dans Grenade captures to perfection his luscious tonal colours, magnificent pedal effects, and subtle dynamic shadings:

Gieseking was not always at his best in the studio (though he was in the Debussy example above!), so in some performances he occasionally sounded a bit less inspired, while at other times his enthusiasm could get the better of him, resulting in readings that were a tad rushed and rhythmically uneven. When he was ‘on’, he was absolutely impeccable in every respect. One such example is a seldom-reissued recording made in 1951 of a less commonly played Scarlatti Sonata. His crisply defined articulation, buoyant rhythm, and gorgeous tone are utterly mesmerizing:

Gieseking had an enormous repertoire, playing a wide array of new music as well, some of which he learned after a single read-through of the score. His extensive discography still features but a fraction of the works that he played. Fortunately, smaller record and CD labels and now YouTube have made it possible to hear this great pianist in works he never officially put on disc, allowing for a reevaluation of Gieseking’s incredible capabilities.

One wonderful example is this very recent discovery: a 1952 Australian transcription disc of the pianist playing three works by two Australian composers, Raymond Hanson and Miriam Hyde. Here is Gieseking at his best, making this new music sound fresh and alive, with gorgeous tonal colours (appreciable despite the crackle of the transcription disc), fluid phrasing, free rhythm, and magical pedal effects.

The remarkably varied styles of these two pianists, each mesmerizing and satisfying in their own way, serve as a reminder that it is important to listen to a wide range of artists. When we are accustomed to one approach, we might miss some equally valid ways of interpretation the same or other music. It is also vital to hear a significant number of recordings by any given musician before deciding definitively if you like their style or not; indeed, the three recordings presented here for each of these artists are hardly enough to grasp their full capabilities, but they are a good starting point of these two tremendous pianists.

How fortunate we are to live at a time when so many great recordings are available of such legendary pianists born 100 years ago or more. Long may we continue to listen to and learn from them!

Conclusion: A Centennial Celebration of Pianistic Brilliance

On the shared birthday of two piano luminaries, György Cziffra and Walter Gieseking, we embark on a journey through the varied tapestry of their artistry, revealing the distinctive styles and interpretative mastery that characterize their contributions to the world of classical music. Despite their differences, both pianists command respect and admiration for their unique approaches, showcasing the richness of pianistic expression.

György Cziffra, a Hungarian virtuoso born a century ago, often faced the misconception that his technical brilliance overshadowed musical depth. However, a closer examination of his performances dispels such notions. In Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Major K.101, Cziffra reveals not only stunning virtuosity but also an extraordinary sensitivity, elegant phrasing, and refined tonal colors. His interpretation of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 exemplifies his mastery of idiomatic inflection and technical prowess, with jaw-dropping dexterity that must be seen to be believed. In Franck’s Variations symphoniques, filmed in 1965, Cziffra’s musicality shines through, demonstrating a masterful touch devoid of harshness—a testament to his nuanced and sensitive approach.

As we celebrate Cziffra’s centenary, his legacy extends beyond virtuosic displays; it encompasses a profound understanding of music, evident in his affinity for Liszt and his ability to transcend technical demands. Cziffra’s artistry, unfairly overshadowed by critical opinions, now stands resplendent for audiences to appreciate.

Walter Gieseking, born on the same day in 1895, offers a contrasting yet equally compelling pianistic narrative. Renowned for his expansive repertoire, Gieseking’s mastery extended from Bach to contemporary works. Particularly acclaimed for his interpretations of French Impressionist repertoire, his rendition of Debussy’s La soirée dans Grenade showcases luscious tonal colors, magnificent pedal effects, and subtle dynamic shadings.

Gieseking’s versatility is evident in a 1951 recording of a Scarlatti Sonata, where his crisply defined articulation and gorgeous tone captivate listeners. A discovery from 1952—a transcription disc of works by Australian composers—reveals Gieseking’s ability to breathe life into new music, demonstrating his magical pedal effects and fluid phrasing.

Both Cziffra and Gieseking, each in their own mesmerizing way, remind us of the importance of embracing a wide range of interpretative styles. Their centennial celebration serves as a poignant reminder of the wealth of recorded treasures we are fortunate to possess. In this era of abundant access to legendary performances, may we continue to listen, learn, and appreciate the diverse brilliance of these two exceptional pianists, born a century ago.


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