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CD Review

Ervin Nyiregyhazi

Nyiregyhazi at the Opera

  • Paraphrase on Wagner's "Lohengrin" and "Rienzi"
  • Paraphrase on Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera"
  • Paraphrase on Verdi's "Il Trovatore"
  • Paraphrase on Verdi's "Otello"
  • Paraphrase on Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin"
  • Paraphrase on Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci"
Ervin Nyiregyhazi, piano
VAI Audio VAI/IPA 1003 ADD monaural 55:29
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Here are some facts about pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi (1903-1987), taken in part from Gregor Benko's notes to this disc:

  1. As a little boy, his parents had servants cut his food and place it in his mouth so he could keep his attention on less mundane matters
  2. Some people claimed he was the literal reincarnation of Liszt
  3. As an adult, he demonstrated a questionable ability to care for himself. At times he was so poor (largely through mismanagement of his money) that he was reduced to sleeping on subways
  4. He was married ten times
  5. As "Pianist X," he sometimes wore a leather mask in performance. Pianos would suffer under his onslaught, and the pianos he chose to play on often had as many nervous tics as the pianist did (a parallel with Glenn Gould)
  6. For decades before this recording was made, Nyiregyhazi did not own a piano, or even practice on one

Perhaps the reader will not be surprised to hear that the two men whom Nyiregyhazi idolized the most were Franz Liszt and Oscar Wilde.

These recordings were made in 1978 during a series of sessions for the International Piano Archives. Material from these sessions was released on Columbia LPs (apparently not transferred to CD), and at their release in 1980, critical and popular opinion was mixed and vociferous. Some people didn't believe that any man could play so loudly, and it's true that Nyiregyhazi might have been one of the loudest pianists of all time. That would be a dubious distinction, however, and there's more to the Nyiregyhazi legend than volume. The man was an eccentric, but he also was a poet, and his playing shows him to have been a man of exquisite refinement and a searching imagination.

There are six paraphrases on this disc: a Rienzi/Lohengrin conflation, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Otello, Eugene Onegin, and I Pagliacci. Some are Lisztian fantasies (the Trovatore paraphrase closely resembles Liszt's, with its reliance on the "Miserere"), and others are more straightforward medleys, although not necessarily of the operas' most popular tunes. None of Nyiregyhazi's imaginative, stylish paraphrases seem trivial, unless one has a deep-seated antipathy to this sort of thing. The pianism is astonishing, considering the man's history, but it is not note-perfect. It is informed with both power and an outstanding timbral sensitivity, although these qualities are more obvious on the Columbia Liszt LPs. The recording itself is only adequate – this is pianism that probably needs the very best in recorded sound to make its full impact.

This is the kind of disc that might make you want to pull out your Ouija board and burn a lot incense as you play it. Traditional it's not, but it's an experience that you won't soon forget, whether your reaction is positive or negative. I think that anyone with a strong interest in the piano and pianists should hear Nyiregyhazi, and in the absence of the Columbia LPs, this CD should do nicely.

Copyright © 1996, Raymond Tuttle