Few names in the annals of great pianism are as obscure as that of Erwin Nyiregyházi (pronounced nyeer-edge-hah-zee). A child prodigy so precocious that a book was published on the miracle of his talents in 1916, by 1926 he was a certified has-been, his career sidelined by poor management, an exploitative parent, inability to function in society, and a profound inability to resist the charms of women; throughout his long life, Nyiregyházi was married 10 times. Forced to sleep on park benches, he left New York in 1928 to play in the service of early talkies. Even as he circulated among the rich and famous in Hollywood -- Gloria Swanson and Bela Lugosi were once among his friends and admirers -- Nyiregyházi proved unable to get his career back on track and was completely out of the concert scene by 1955. This, despite Arnold Schoenberg's admonition in 1935 that Nyiregyházi's playing contained "a power of expression I have never heard before."
While it is relatively easy to find expert testimony as to Nyiregyházi's powers and technique in his prime -- the booklet to Music & Arts' expertly annotated Erwin Nyiregyházi in Performance is loaded with them -- the first-hand evidence is all but utterly lacking. Rediscovered in 1972 by piano enthusiasts at age 71 and not having looked at a piano in some 20 years, Nyiregyházi resumed his concert career playing at private soirées, country clubs, and in Japan until he finally decided he'd had enough of it at age 79 and quit. In the interregnum, Nyiregyházi recorded for the International Piano Archives, tapes that subsequently appeared as record albums on Columbia on Desmar, and when he was in Japan, his every note was recorded for Toshiba/EMI. Some later performances show that his technical equipment was still impressive and his grasp of a musical work in the big picture sense -- a prerequisite in romantic pianism -- was still something awesome. However, Nyiregyházi's memory was growing faulty and any concern he may have had for playing the right notes "right" had dissipated to nothing. About that, Nyiregyházi once said, "So I hit a few wrong notes. So what? They lost a few men in the Crusades, didn't they?" The one surviving pre-1972 recording of Nyiregyházi -- excepting his Ampico piano rolls, made in 1921-1926 -- is included here, and it doesn't offer much of a clue as to what Nyiregyházi sounded like before neglect and bad habits set in for good.
So if his playing is loaded with mistakes, one might ask, why listen? When we set the bar so high for young performers who are struggling to make their marks, why would we bother with the old men who have taken their talents and thrown them away? Nyiregyházi was not just any "old man"; he was a direct inheritor of the romantic tradition as practiced by pianists like Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and particularly Liszt -- he did not study with Liszt, who died before he was born, but Nyiregyházi did study with Liszt's Scottish pupil Frederic Lamond. The titanic power, sweep, and urgency of Nyiregyházi's interpretation of Liszt's St. Francis of Paule Walking on the Water is still quite palpable despite the torrents of wrong notes and its transmission through a many-times-copied, disintegrating recording.
It will take a special listener to "get" Erwin Nyiregyházi in Performance, to tolerate the bad sound drawn from home recordings, indifferently tuned pianos, and the willful eccentricities of Nyiregyházi himself. Nevertheless, the meat of the matter is that Nyiregyházi was one of the last great links we had to the romantic tradition of the piano, and we came awfully close to having none of it. This collection represents the best of what is left of the live performances of Nyiregyházi, a brilliant genius trapped in a troubled and chaotic life.