Tuesday, 30 December 2008

LOST GENIUS by Kevin Bazzana / Review

by Kevin Bazzana
Carroll & Graf Publishers
Hardcover / 383 pages

Do you have a musical child prodigy with the world seemingly at his or her feet? Beware, as this is a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when parents’ unfulfilled ambitions and avarice take precedence over the special needs of growing talent.

Ervin Nyiregyhazi (1903-87) was all but a forgotten pianist when he died in abject poverty, known only to a small coterie of pianophiles. Yet in his teenage years, he was a musical superstar. He played three concertos in a single concert at 13, was feted by royalty and hailed as the next Franz Liszt. So what caused this reversal of fortunes?

Nyiregyhazi (pronounced Near-edge-har-zee) was born in Budapest, Hungary to a Jewish family of middling musicians. A weak and adulterous father coupled with a domineering and control-freak of a mother was sure recipe for disaster.

Never allowed to grow up like a normal child, he was molly-coddled, served hand and foot for every caprice and fancy. Unable to handle relationships, fame and fortune, and the stresses of a burgeoning career, the excesses that plague today’s pop icons soon took their toll.

With concerts down to a trickle, he was reduced to playing in B-grade movies and being a hand model for actors and other pianists. A nadir was reached when he was re-introduced into concert life as the mysterious Mr X, performing a recital in Los Angeles wearing a hood over his head.

Despite the humiliation, Nyiregyhazi maintained an old world aristocratic demeanor, and continued to live beyond his means. “I’m addicted to Liszt, sex and alcohol – not necessarily in that order.” was a boast of this man-child. He married ten times, mostly fraught and unstable unions on a whim, and lived like a destitute, sometimes in subways and brothels.

He devoted much time to composing, but these were highly personal and largely unplayable works, with titles ranging from the remarkably mundane to near-pornographic bizarreness. One such latter piece was titled Orgy of the Despearadoes: Mutiny in Singapore.

In his old age, he was afforded a renaissance when piano-fanciers contrived his return into the recording studio in the 1970s. These records even proved a best-seller, however his playing divided critics; some praised his orchestral-like sonorities while others vilified him as a sham. What was certain: Nyiregyhazi was a relic of a bygone era.

He gave his final concerts in Japan in 1982, arranged by a group of cult-like devotees. Like an uncanny earlier version of David Helfgott (of Shine notoriety), his name was once again - albeit briefly - in the limelight, before dissipating into obscurity.

Kevin Bazzana, whose penchant seems to be for wayward pianists (Glenn Gould, for example), writes with sympathy and much vividness, even if the narrative of Nyiregyhazi’s marriages and numerous affairs descend into the realm of pulp fiction.

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