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Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Musical Prodigy [Paperback]

Kevin Bazzana
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 1 2008
Born in 1903, pianist Ervin Nyiregyhzi was the subject of the first book devoted to the scientific study of a single prodigy. By twenty-five he had all but disappeared. Mismanaged, exploited, and unfashionably romantic, his career floundered in adulthood. He drank heavily, married ten times, and was reduced to penury, sometimes living on the subway. He settled in Los Angeles where he performed sporadically, counting many of Holly-woods elite among his friends, including Gloria Swanson, a likely lover. Rediscovered in the 1970s, he enjoyed a sensational and controversial renaissance, before slipping back into obscurity.

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From Publishers Weekly

Ervin Nyiregyházi (1903–1987) dazzled concert audiences in the early 20th century with his volcanic performances, playing so intensely that his fingers bled on the keys. Alas, his keyboard virtuosity was drowned out by a discordant symphony of neuroses. Unable even to tie his shoes properly, Nyiregyházi, who was born in Budapest, Hungary, and settled in L.A., wrestled with crippling stage fright; drank and womanized compulsively (his seventh wife was a prostitute he met six days before marrying her in Vegas); exhausted others with his neediness, paranoia and grandiose posturing; and sabotaged a potentially brilliant career in the name of artistic purity. Bazzana, biographer of eccentric pianist Glenn Gould, follows Nyiregyházi's life from early acclaim through decades of poverty, obscurity and debauchery to his brief, celebrated comeback in the 1970s as the skid row pianist. Although Bazzana can be reductionist—he diagnoses Nyiregyházi with borderline personality disorder brought on by a domineering stage mother—he tells this lurid story sympathetically, without excusing Nyiregyházi's excesses. Even better, he writes about his subject's music in a lucid and evocative way. A tormented, self-destructive artist and the creator of thrilling, emotionally supercharged music, Nyiregyházi is, in Bazzana's compelling portrait, a study in the upside and downside of romanticism. Photos. (Sept. 17)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Playing the piano and composing at three, performing publicly at six, Ervin Nyiregyházi (1903–87) mastered the romantic repertoire, especially Liszt, very early. Isolated from age mates because of his gifts, he grew up to be sexually insatiable and married 10 times. Infantile in personality, he depended on others to promote his career and manage his life. Famous as a teen playing in Europe and the U.S., he was forgotten at 25 and settled in California. He thereafter played in movies, serving as a hand double, but seldom performed in public. Shy and retiring, he feared performing though his technique was loud and powerful. Rediscovered in the 1970s, he made several studio recordings. He composed constantly, though little of his work was published or performed. As in his biography of Glenn Gould, Wondrous Strange (2004), Bazzana bares the soul of his subject and reveals a musician who should be remembered as the peer of such contemporaries as Arrau, Horowitz, and Rudolf Serkin. Rather than waxing and waning twice, his star should have shone constantly. Hirsch, Alan

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5.0 out of 5 stars A Haunting and Gripping Tale of a Lost Genius Sept. 12 2007
Format:Hardcover
As an avid reader of biographies, I have tended to be very picky about what I read. Harold C. Schonberg's Horowitz biography was one of the worst I have ever read, and was disappointing because of Schonberg's personal relationship with Horowitz.

Then comes this biography by Kevin Bazzana of this dipsomaniacal diva of the keyboard, Ervin Nyiregyhazi. Now Nyiregyhazi's pianism is in itself a fascination, a magnificent ruin. But as I read this book, totally engrossed for six hours, one can understand what ruined the man. Without going into too much detail (you really must read the book!), alcoholism, sex addiction, inability to cope with daily matters, possible sexual abuse by a parent, Ervin Nyiregyhazi's exceptionally rich and fascinating pianism and life is quite a yarn. You will not be able to put it down. Only one thing could have fleshed out the book, and that is a compact disc of Nyiregyhazi's playing included with the book. Perhaps a future edition will contain this.

Otherwise, this is a book to cherish and to read again and again.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Lost Genius: Lost Opportunities July 20 2007
Format:Hardcover
Canadian author Kevin Bazzana has captured the essence of wunderkind 'skid-row' pianist/composer Ervin Nyiregyhazi in an excellent rendering of his life and misfortunes. Bazzana's writing is easily followed and dares the reader to put it aside.
Potential buyers would benefit by purchasing Nyireghazi's commercially available CD (Nyiregyhazi At The Opera) to truly appreciate this unusually gifted artist. No recorded pianist played like him, or ever will. That is how distinct his sound was. His LPs have not yet been remastered to digital, but are worth every penny on the used market. His performance of the Liszt Deux Legendes is perhaps the greatest live recording of all time: Mr. Nyiregyhazi's interpretations are so convincing, overwhelmingly powerful and transcendental, that the pieces breathe anew.
Kevin Bazzana takes on all facets of Mr. Nyiregyhazi's life; the weird upbringing, his prodigious talent, and the collapse of his career and many personal failings. The book is well cited and researched, and by my account, the best biography I've read.
Mr. Bazzana's book is one to add to your library, whether you are a musician or merely interested in a fascinating tale of a musical genius.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Undoing of a Genius Dec 24 2007
By Hank Drake - Published on Amazon.com
In 1924, Geza Revesh published The Psychology of a Musical Prodigy, a scholarly study which focused on Ervin Nyiregyhazi's childhood and early gifts. Over 80 years later, Revesh's book remains a reference work. But what happened to the subject of that book?

Kevin Bazzana's book is the first to document the rest of Nyiregyhazi's life in detail, from his spectacular 1920 Carnegie Hall debut, to his early flameout a few years later, and his bizarre resurrection in the 1970s.

During the middle period of his life, previously undocumented, Nyiregyhazi relentlessly indulged dual addictions for alcohol and sex. Aside from composing doggedly old fashioned works with silly titles, Nyiregyhazi's activity in the musical community ground to a halt. He did not practice, nor did he even own a piano. The last was understandable because he did not have a stable residence. Bazzana has chronicled these winter years (roughly 1925-1972, although the pianist did some rewarding work with the WPA in the 1930s) in great detail. Nyiregyhazi married ten times. Although Bazzana mentions all his wives, it's not easy keeping the chronology in sequence because Bazzana goes back and forth between time periods. Perhaps a chart would have been helpful!

While much been has made of Nyiregyhazi's treatment by the music industry (in 1925, he was compelled to sue his manager), it becomes apparent reading Bazzana's book that the main reason for the collapse of Nyiregyhazi's career was the pianist himself. He was loathe to play standard repertoire, especially in later years, because he feared comparison with other pianists. The fact that he refused to practice, even when provided with a piano, did not help his playing.

Bazzana does not pretend to be objective. He believes that Nyiregyhazi belongs in the pantheon of great pianists, and complains that the Hungarian, also a "great pianist," was not afforded the 1903 centennial celebration that was given to Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Horowitz, and Rudolf Serkin. Bazzana seems to be particularly obsessed with Horowitz, taking trouble to note that Nyiregyhazi was "not very much impressed" with his Russian contemporary and seeming perturbed that Nyiregyhazi perished with a mere $2,000 to his name while Horowitz's estate was valued at between $6 and $8 million. Horowitz's opinion of Nyiregyhazi is unknown. Other musicians' opinions of Nyiregyhazi ranged from to "pure expression" (Arnold Schoenberg), to "an amateur" (Vladimir Ashkenazy) and "the biggest piece of baloney" (Earl Wild). Nyiregyhazi seldom garnered a neutral response, and Bazzana can be forgiven the occasional hyperbole in his recounting of the pianist's extraordinary and tragic story.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Lying in the Gutter, But Looking at the Stars" June 12 2008
By J Scott Morrison - Published on Amazon.com
This book is a triumph of the biographer's art. But the subject of the biography is sad beyond words. Ervin Nyiregyházi (pronounced, approximately NEER-edge-hawzy) was a profoundly gifted musical child prodigy, born in 1903 in Budapest and compared with Mozart in his youth. His first biography, written by Hungarian psychologist Géza Révész in 1910-1914 when the child was only 7-11, is one of the most detailed studies of a child genius ever written. Kevin Bazzana, a Canadian whose previous biography of Glenn Gould was acclaimed, pursued his subject's life story for more than ten years and looked under virtually every stone in search of material about his subject. Other reviewers here have detailed his sad descent from feted prodigy to sex-obsessed skidrow bum with his odd autumn in the sun when he was 'rediscovered' in the 1970s and a few recordings put on the market. Those recordings revealed the wreck of a great pianist, one with an obsession for emotional expression perhaps at the expense of technical finesse. Those records sold rather well and pianistic cognoscenti debated their worth, and still do.

Nyiregyházi considered himself more a composer than a pianist, but frankly little is known of his works. They were apparently typically slow, lugubrious and cryptic; many of them had bizarre autobiographical titles. For instance, toward the end of his life he wrote pieces with titles such as 'Hopeless Vista', 'The Grim Reaper Approaches', 'Time is Running Out', 'With Slow Footsteps Death Approaches'. From the reproduction of one of his pieces, the aforementioned 'Hopeless Vista', one gathers that his style was to write brief, harmonically odd works that attempt to convey a single emotional state. I could make little of 'Hopeless Vista' except that it would certainly not be a crowd-pleaser. Which brings us to the crux of Nyiregyházi's life -- his refusal to make compromises with the public appetite, his profoundly idiosyncratic style of making music, his incredibly inept psychological coping mechanisms and his dependence of a series of ten wives and many other women and men who at least briefly attempted to help him. A psychiatrist/pianist who knew him offered the likelihood of a diagnosis of 'borderline personality disorder', and as a psychiatrist myself I would tend to agree with this diagnosis, dangerous though it be to diagnose without ever having personally examined him. Certainly his tendency to have wildly fluctuating moods over a matter of minutes or hours, his intense interpersonal sensitivity that became outright paranoia at times, his inflated sense of his own importance coupled nonetheless with intense self-doubts, his furious reaction to what he considered insulting behavior of others and his alcoholism and sexual compulsions all point to this severe diagnosis. In short, he couldn't help himself, couldn't stop his inexorable path toward self-destruction. A sad, sad case.

Kevin Bazzana has written a riveting book, not sparing us either the outré details of Nyiregyházi's life nor his brief and soaring triumphs. I found myself unable to put the book down.

Strongly recommended both as a work of art and as a fascinating story.

Scott Morrison
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How can we approach to a genius of the keyboard? Jan. 19 2008
By Hiram Gomez Pardo - Published on Amazon.com
There's always something to discover around the figure of a sheer pianist. Specially of we are talking about the most eccentric pianist the world knew about. You may cite Mr. Gould, but in the case of Erwin Nyiregyhazi we are talking about a sheer artist, a thinker musician, that never gave a affected sound, although he was a Romantic per excellence.

When I had the chance to listen in 1976 his double album "Nyiregyhazi plays Liszt" and listened his performance about The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 3, I could not believe such high caliber pianism, his sound was indeed profound, revealing and sumptuously expressive: His octaves, tremolos, arpeggios and fortes were really amazing. But when I listened Mosonyi' s Funeral Procession I understood why he was so highly acclaimed. He really played the piano as it was an orchestra, a full rounded sound with an astonishing sense of the span.

Of course you may argue he played some wrong bars here and there, but what does it matter ? , when you know about his main target was to capture the essence of the work.

Kevin Bazzana gives a very detailed account about his personality, his obsessive way of living (after all, the excesses have always been a trademark in the spirit of all Romantic don' t you?).

What we really regret was his personal decision to exile himself for so long. Certainly his reappearance in 1973 was motive of jubilee all over the world.

To get close this artist of the piano demands a total obliteration of all our mental map and to assist to a true artistic experience with all its in and outs.

A penetrating and passionate biography about the most eccentric pianist of the XX Century.

Here you have a brave opinion of Mr. Nyiregyhazi: "My approach is a combination of instinct and conscious morality. It is not sin to change a score, but you can' t do it in a frivolous way. An artist has to impose a sense of responsibility on the music. He must never violate the faith of the composer. That is a matter of artistic honor."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting story about a tragic talented musician March 16 2009
By Frederick D. Fiene - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Well researched but the author goes overboard on details in some cases and jumps back and forth in time too much. Sad tale, Nyiregyházi was extremely talented. Knowledgeable musicians who had seen both musicians compared his talent to Liszt. But his terrible character flaws prevented him from reaching his potential. After awhile the sad story that boiled down to the fact that he was spoiled, selfish and undisciplined got a little old. But it goes from fame to shame and back to fame (in his later years), so it is somewhat intriguing. I would even rate it a recommended read for music lovers.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "One of the great musical biographies" Sept. 14 2009
By Erik Ketzan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
There are already a bunch of comprehensive reviews of Bazzana's excellent book here at Amazon and around the web, but I'll add my five-stars, along with a whole-hearted recommendation of this impeccably researched, beautifully written biography of a one-of-a-kind tragic genius, Ervin Nyiregyházi.

Nyiregyházi is a fascinating figure because he represents a "road not taken" in classical music of the last century. Unlike almost every major pianist of the last hundred years, Nyiregyházi had no qualms about playing fast and loose with musical scores-- he altered, chopped, reconfigured, and judiciously adapted the works of the great composers, and, just as importantly, created entirely new interpretations of the works of Liszt, Grieg, and many others. Although such performance practice makes up the essence of jazz, rock, and other popular forms of music, this behavior is still considered not only unusual, but UNTHINKABLY RADICAL in classical music performance. Even now, in 2009.

In an age where classical musicians keep putting out recording after recording (after recording) of the same tired old warhorses, distinguished only by the most minor, fussy variations in tempo and dynamics, Nyiregyházi's rip-roaring approach to classical music comes as a breath of fresh air. Would that we had ten more Nyiregyházis today.
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