Monday, November 29, 2010

The Gypsy pianist

Gyorgy Cziffra, there is a life.

From what I see on the Internet you are now supposed to say, ahem, Georges Cziffra. But I am sorry, Cziffra will always be Gyorgy to me.

When he was a little boy he played the piano in a traveling Gypsy circus. Cziffra was Gypsy. From what I see on the Internet you are supposed to say, ahem, Roma. But again I am sorry, Cziffra will always by Gypsy to me.

Imagine playing the piano in a traveling Gypsy circus. Talk about The. World's. Coolest. Job.

Here is a video of Cziffra at 13. This kills me, you know? There are millions of obscure videos of all kinds of pianists turning up on YouTube except for Pennario, there is next to nothing. Pennario, this household name, nothing turns up. He is a shadow. A sphinx. Well, I digress.

When Cziffra grew up tragedy struck. The Communists in Hungary imprisoned him for three years. They tortured him and after that Cziffra always played with a leather band on his wrist because of injuries he received, also just to remember. That is the way Gypsies think!

Cziffra married an Egyptian woman. They had a son who apparently killed himself. That has to have been terribly tough on the old man. When Cziffra died at 72 it was from lung cancer and -- I read this -- "complications from smoking and alcohol."

I got onto all this yesterday because I was deep into my Pennario book and I was reading how Harold Schonberg, the New York Times critic, was praising Pennario's Tchaikovsky First and saying it beat out Cziffra's, which came out at the same time. Schonberg wrote that Cziffra's in comparison was flashy and vulgar. I felt bad for Cziffra. When Schonberg got his claws into you it was not fun.

Anyway, what hardships in Cziffra's life but also what beauty and drama and flair.

Cziffra wrote a memoir called "Guns and Flowers" which was clearly the inspiration for the rock band Guns 'N Roses.

Quite a life and legacy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Oh! Mr. Fleisher!

So I am reading the new Leon Fleisher book, which pianist Fleisher, pictured above, wrote with Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette. I am engrossed in the part of the book where Fleisher talks about meeting the woman who would become his second wife.

I enjoy that kind of reminiscence. I burned through Arthur Rubinstein's "My Young Years," I will tell you that right now. Although in Rubinstein's memoirs it did get to be a bit much.

One particular thing in the Fleisher book, I got a kick out of.

Fleisher writes how he is bowled over by this woman, Rikki, because she is beautiful and loves Bartok.

That is all well and good!

But then comes the, ahem, seduction scene. Which of course I am glued to. Fleisher shows up after a concert tour at Rikki's apartment. He brings a magnum of champagne and "Der Rosenkavalier."

Gotta love that!

I am thinking, sure, you think you love a woman because she loves Bartok. But oh boy, when it's time for amour, who's your friend? Not Bartok.

Richard Strauss, that is who.

How a guy who looked like him turned out stuff like this, this or this, we will never know.

But sometimes we are glad he did!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Who's that guy on the cello?

As my vinyl kick continues... I love how the old record box sets often include lavish books with pictures. You cannot get these in CDs because CDs are just too small. The format does not work for luxury. The most beautiful box set still winds up with just a cheap little booklet with small disappointing pictures. You just cannot get around that!

As opposed to the big pictures and quality paper of the booklet accompanying this 2-record RCA Red Seal set I picked up somewhere, of Fritz Kreisler playing with Rachmaninoff.

It included the above picture of Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg is the one on the cello! I am sorry, I stared and stared. I did not know that at any point in his life he looked like one of the old guys who hang out at the Rose Garden in Buffalo. The Rose Garden is an old German restaurant.

Look at him there with that little Tyrolean band! That is Kreisler, of course, on fiddle second from the left.

Would you fancy looking at another picture of Fritz Kreisler? Thank you, I do not mind if I do.

That picture was also in my booklet.

My friend Gary got me on to the idea of buying records for their booklets. He recommends buying those "World's Greatest Classics" series because of that. He got a Debussy set along those lines that included a booklet with a photo of Debussy after dinner, passed out at the table with an empty wine bottle in front of him, sitting next to a woman with a turban. Gary made copies of that picture for his friends and we all have them framed. We have never seen that picture anywhere else! And I cannot find it on the Internet.

Just one more reason to buy vinyl.

Here is Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesleid," arranged by Rachmaninoff, performed with unabashed smoldering passion by America's greatest pianist, Pennario. This is funny, my friend Larry, who made the video, pulled a typo and reversed two letters so instead of reading "Love's pain," it reads "Love's song." Either one is correct, say I.

Here is an annoying-but-sort-of-cool square Canadian-sounding video about Schoenberg cabaret songs -- songs I love and once binged on for about a week. This is the side of Schoenberg you do not often hear and naturally the side I like better than the one you usually hear about.

It is the Schoenberg from the above photograph!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A buried treasure

Today I was so jazzed from having sorted out my records that I went and listened, for the first time, to that Christmas record I was admiring yesterday. The one with the classic cover, pictured above.

What a kick! It is far and away my favorite Christmas record.

I looked on YouTube and someone has posted "Deck the Halls."  If that does not bring back the era of the silver screen in all its glory! I love how the tune suddenly veers into a whole different mood, the way it does at 1:20, around there. It is like "Gone With the Wind."

The arrangements are by the conductor, Carmen Dragon.

What is funny is, working on this book on Leonard Pennario as I am, a record like this makes me understand more where Pennario was coming from, being the pianist on the Capitol label. It would definitely make some stuffy people see you differently than if you were on one of the more "establishment" labels. Oiks and eggheads would just see a record of Pennario playing, say, Schumann's F Minor Piano Sonata and they would go, uh, I don't think so.

They lose! We know better now.

Carmen Dragon, pops conductor and arranger, was a big presence at Capitol. He was also a big presence in Hollywood. For one thing he wrote the score to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

I looked up a picture of Carmen Dragon and found this snapshot.

Here is his very Catholic-looking gravestone.

Carmen Dragon rests in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery so, bingo, I guess he was Catholic. Did I really write "Bingo"? An appropriate choice of word there. 

If you are into cemeteries the way I am, there is this great site that tells you about the other faithful departed that rest along with Carmen Dragon in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery. Among them are Ritchie Valens; Ed Begley Sr.; the actor who played Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy," and Bob Hope. I had not known Bob Hope was Catholic. I also had not known who played Fred Mertz. His name is William Frawley.

Live and learn!

Or should I say, live and listen.