I guess that if you like Horowitz you will like Cziffra. His career was all too short, ending abruptly on the tragic death of his son. He was a Hungarian gipsy born in 1921 and dying in 1991, the year that also saw Serkin, Kempff and Arrau summoned away in short order. By now I have lost track of the pianists I have seen described as ultimate technicians -- Hoffman, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Michelangeli, Argerich, Pollini, Gavrilov, Kissin and of course the obligatory Richter among others. My own two finalists in that particular competition would be Michelangeli and Cziffra. Michelangeli is sui generis, a different pianistic animal from any of the others. Cziffra is in something like the 19th century virtuoso tradition as I know it from Hoffman and Rachmaninoff. Speeds are typically fast, as they were from Rachmaninoff, and virtuosity is a key element in Cziffra's way of expressing the music. This is entirely as it should be in my opinion. When Cziffra's career was at its height something dangerously like staidness was in vogue, and something known as 'virtuosity for its own sake' was widely viewed as a Bad Thing. I have never even known what it was supposed to be, let alone why it was such a bad thing, but I recall Cziffra falling foul of this particular critical waffle, and it goes a long way to explain why he is not better known. Anyway Cziffra treated technical brilliance as an integral part of the musical expression in certain pieces, and rightly so say I. Why playing brilliant pieces in an unbrilliant way should be considered a plus for expressiveness is the bit I have never understood. The recorded sound is rather hard in the Chopin studies, much better in the Polonaise, where it is interesting to compare him with Horowitz. In the middle section both are absolutely dumbfounding, the main difference being that Cziffra does not go through his tone as Horowitz does. This was something that Horowitz carried off with aplomb, but something everyone else has had the good sense not to copy. Where I like Cziffra very much better is at the start, where Horowitz deploys a peculiar dry touch that he was occasionally prone to adopt on inappropriate occasions. Rubinstein pedals heavily here, which is fine by me, but Cziffra's finger-legato is easily the best way. In the studies I would not say that I prefer Cziffra to the fine sets by Ashkenazy (here at his all-too-rare best) or Pollini. It's near-impossible to rank three such players in 24 short pieces. What I would ask you not to believe is the booklet, which nearly falls into the 'virtuosity for its own sake' morass. There is plenty of soul and expressiveness from Cziffra here, although the hard recorded sound doesn't help. I don't believe, for instance, that Cziffra banged at the bass in the 'butterfly' study or the one in sixths the way he comes across as recorded here. In the Liszt pieces if you take away the virtuosity there is little or nothing left, but virtuosity plus belief like this almost had me taking them seriously as music, which is saying a lot. They are simply astounding, and I apologise for using such a term to anyone who is as weary of it as I am. This time it's true. In the very last resort Cziffra seems to me even more of a virtuoso wonder than Horowitz, and this playing is full of heart, soul and fire. I do not know whether as a Hungarian Cziffra represents some specially authentic Lisztian tradition. What I do know is that he does more for Liszt as far as I am concerned than anyone else has ever done.
EMI have just reissued Cziffra's electrifying recording  of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies [No.2, 6, 8 - 15] in their 'Great Recordings of the Century' series. This Philips 2CD set of Chopin and Liszt in their 'Great Pianists of the 20th Century' edition is also worthy of that accolade. Cziffra escaped from war torn Hungary with his wife and young son having earlier given a stunning account of Bartok's second concerto at the Erkèl Thèàtre Budapest on 22nd October 1956, the eve of the Hungarian insurrection [EMI Rèferènces]. He crossed the border into Austria where he commenced a meteoric career. His first recital at the Brahmsaal Vienna set the Danube aflame and was hailed as an 'historic event' - news of Cziffra's phenomenal playing even reached The New Yorker! On that occasion Cziffra not only delighted his Viennese audience [and critics] with his Mozart [Sonata in A minor K310] and Beethoven [32 Variations in C minor] but he also astounded them with his great Liszt playing; also his own transcriptions [given as encores] of Strauss's 'Voices of Spring' and Bizet's Carmen. Later he made audiences gasp in amazement at his own arrangement [in octaves!] of Rimsky-Korsakoff's 'Flight of the Bumble-Bee'.The Viennese audience can consider themselves very fortunate to have heard Cziffra play 'live' - especially in Liszt. I also consider myself lucky to have heard the great pianist play Liszt's first concerto and Hungarian Fantasy with the Hallè Orchestra in Manchester in 1959. Cziffra was so rapturously received that he played a bouquet of scintillating encores that brought the house down and had critics searching for their most colourful superlatives. 'La réincarnation de Liszt' was Marcel Dupré's description of Cziffra and we can well see why on the first of Philip's two CD's devoted to him. This is Liszt playing - not only of the most astounding virtuosity - but more importantly of poetry, passion, imagination and ecstatic spiritual vision which has never been equalled or surpassed. Just listen to the lyrical intensity and yearning of Cziffra's playing of the Sonetto 123 del Patrarca and indeed of the Etude de concert 'Un sospiro'. The cadenzas in the latter cascade and shimmer like star-dust as do similar passages in the Tarantella - [Annèes de pèlerinage] and 'La leggierezza'. At times there are passages in the Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H that sound like a volcanic eruption - the sheer drama of the playing is mesmerising. ' St. Francis Walking on the Waters' is similarly enthralling - climax is piled upon climax like some kind of virtuosic religious ecstacy - as it also is in the Transcendental Study 'Chasse-neige' - a snow storm to envelope the whole world. The Tarantella di bravura from Auber's 'La muette de Portici' is so stunning that it makes you laugh out loud. As for the Mephisto Waltz No.1 - all I can say is that there is nothing to compare with this - it is simply astounding! Cziffra the greatest Liszt player ever? Well - yes! Cziffra the greatest Chopin player? Cziffra turned more and more to Chopin as the years went by because he did not want to be labled as a Liszt specialist. Perhaps not a wise decision. His Chopin recordings for Philips [1962, 1963, 1967] which were always controversial were reissued on a four CD boxed set in France in 1991 to celebrate Cziffra's seventieth birthday. Although the Etudes Op.10 were issued complete the Op.25 set were issued only in part so here at last after thirty years we have them all on one CD. Worth waiting for? It is true that Cziffra the 'klaviertiger' supreme devours the Etudes whole. Some people even suggested that Cziffra must have 'cheated' in the first Etude in C major - that it wasn't possible to play it so fast. [see the EMI/BBC video for proof - available form the FONDATION CZIFFRA/internet site]. Yes speed records are broken - in the Etudes Op.10 No. 4 & 5 for instance - that wicked 'tingle factor,' but there is poetry too in the lovely Etude in A flat Op.25/1, the heart-melting middle section of the E minor Op.25/5 and the Op25/7 in C sharp minor [duet for two hands] is beautifully played as is the middle section of the octave study. Op.25 in B minor. The outer section of the latter can rival anything by Horowitz and the 'Winter Winds' Etude in A minor comes across with the energy and force of a tornado - similarly the final Etude in C minor is like a violent chorale - it is like some kind of centrifugal force that pins you down and you can't move until it is finished! Wow! Cziffra's Chopin Etudes then are a unique experience - certainly not for the critic who said that he'd yet to hear a pianist who made him more nervous - expecting at any moment one of Cziffra's pianistic grenades to be tossed into the piano! Definately not for those of a nervous disposition. For the rest - enjoy this unique experience!