Saturday, January 22, 2011

If you live long enough, your weirdness could be celebrated……..

       About seven years ago, I had a subscription to Discoveries magazine – a record collecting rag published every two months or so. In 2003, an interesting column popped up for a few issues and then disappeared – “Thrift store records and cheap red wine”. The author would scour his neighborhood Salvation Army for weird old vinyl LPs, buy some odd imported cheap red wine and write a critique – one LP per bottle of vino. It made for some entertaining reading, but the review about an enigmatic classical pianist by the name of Nyireyghazi was one of the most persuasive pieces of writing about music I’ve ever encountered. I found a site where somebody copied this whole article (though the author's name is misspelled) and you can read it here:               

It’s a great read – the author is a pretty talented writer and musician named Lane Steinberg. The line from the review that really grabbed me was “This record makes Skip James sound like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.” To me, this was a glowing recommendation – almost like a challenge. “Must get my hands on a copy of this,” says me. But somehow, I got sidetracked and forgot about the article until about a month ago when I uncovered the old magazine.

I had to scour ebay for a vinyl copy since this is not on CD (and not likely to be in the near future I reckon). I spotted a cheap one as a “buy it now” deal and while I was waiting for it to arrive I started checking out other Liszt stuff on youtube to get a feel for what the music sounds like when performed by reasonably sane musicians. I was surprised to discover I knew at least one Liszt piece pretty well – the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. You know it too! Remember that Bugs Bunny cartoon – you know, the one where Bugs is playing the piano? Okay here it is:
So that’s Liszt. Anyway – Liszt was a character in his own right and composed some pretty far out stuff for the era in which he lived and died (1800’s).

But back to Nyireyghazi. There are now a few tribute websites devoted to this mad pianist – one of them has a link to a TV report from the 1970’s profiling Nyireyghazi’s rediscovery. Here’s the site where you can see the documentary:

Through this site I discovered a biography was written about Nyireyghazi that was published three years ago (small wonder these things get published at all). Amazon came through here with a $4 paperback edition. I’m about halfway through the book now and what a crazy life! Did the creators of Forest Gump know about Nyireyghazi? Here’s a quick glance at who he was:               
        A child prodigy (played for the Queen of England at 8 years old!), virtuoso by his 20’s, but several factors collided which left him drifting – sometimes homeless on park benches for……….* gulp *    DECADES………… occasionally rubbing shoulders with movie stars, gangsters, politicians  and racking up a total of TEN WIVES over the course of his life. He was rediscovered in his  *gulp *  70’s (!!) whereupon he cut records for Columbia, toured Japan and then………drifted back into pretty grim poverty. And that’s the SHORT version of what could possibly be described as the most improbable, WTF life of a musician that I’ve ever encountered.

The album finally arrived a few days ago (the package was bent in shipping, but amazingly the records were not damaged - kind of appropriate to the music somehow). I sat listening to it as I was typing. This is possibly the most pain-soaked record I’ve ever heard in my life. If Lester Bangs had heard this record he would have LOVED it. Nyireyghazi’s technique was shot to hell by the time he cut these sides, but the soul really shines through. This is not “pristine” and shiny classical music – it’s raw, in your face and real, but still somehow dignified (an irony since the musician in question had, well, a pretty loose interpretation of the concept of dignity – he lived like a rock star in more ways than one!). Arnold Schoenberg apparently loved him. Otto Klemperer hated him. Audiences were divided too – pretty much through his whole life. The Columbia record unfortunately does not reflect the pristine technique that reviews of his earlier performances speak of. But it does reflect his aesthetic – which is controversial still and raises the question: “Does so-called Classical music demand precision over soul?” Are these qualities mutually exclusive? Can a performance be artistically valid if the performer takes liberties with the composition and makes mistakes? What is music all about, anyway?

I think Nyireyghazi was probably doomed to be a fringe-artist anyway – no matter how gifted he was as a young man, he carved out a pretty obscure niche as a controversial interpreter of a Romantic composer/pianist (Liszt) who had fallen out of favor (and still isn’t widely regarded) with the general public. In his own way, he was as far out as Sun Ra, almost as ubiquitous and misunderstood in his lifetime, but – and this is really saying something – I think not destined to be as widely remembered. Now if Nyireyghazi had performed wearing a space helmet………………..

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