2004-05-04 02:01:32 UTC
Romano, who is one of the contributors to "Pianophiles", is involved) a
lengthy interview with Gyorgy Sandor, which interview I think is both a
pleasure to read and highly on (many) topic(s) of (in) rmcr. It offers
the rare pleasure of reading for free the detailed opinions of an
excellent pianist (my favorite in a Bartok "piano integrale") and
dedicated professor, opinions on great pianists of the past and of the
present. I'll have to admit that Mr. Sandor's suggesting Josef Hofmann
having been "the greatest" of all pianists pleases me not a little. I've
also been pleased to note that, long before I read this, I talked about
Sandor's approach to Bartok, just from listening to his records, in
terms he would have possibly approved of himself. (E.g., my talking
about how the conception of Bartok's chordal writing is projected by the
performer can make for a huge difference in how the music *and the
language* itself is perceived.) But even when he offers opinions one may
disagree with, Mr. Sabdor's personality and candor are, I think, most
GYORGY SANDOR: An Old World Gentleman Interview conducted by CHARLES
BERIGAN and FRANCIS ROMANO
CB: Upon entrance into Gyorgy Sandor’s apartment, both Francis and I
were struck by the incredible collection of photographs, letters, and
all manner of assorted memorabilia. Chief among these was a large photo
of Bela Bartok and his second wife Ditta Pastory right next to where
Sandor would sit to practice or transcribe Kodaly or remain active in
the myriad, miraculous ways he continues to be to this day at 90 years
of age. So I asked him: What can you tell me about this photo of Bartok
and his second wife, Ditta Pastory? I’ve never seen it.
GS: That’s because it’s original.
CB: But it projects such warmth. I’ve always been led to believe in much
I’ve read that Bartok was legendary for tremendous reserve, even coolness.
GS: So there’s a legend about Bartok. One of many. Surely, one of many.
You wanted me to talk about Cziffra, didn’t you?
FR: We want you to talk about anything you please. This is our pleasure
Mr. Sandor… believe me.
GS: Well, I’ve been fairly close to Bartok…I studied with him for four
years. Now he’s considered a great genius, a great star. But at the
time, he was teaching piano at the Academy. (Franz Liszt Academy,
Budapest) Composition was taught by Kodaly. And in those days Dohnanyi
was the boss of everything. He was the President of the Academy,
President of the Symphonic Orchestra. He was everything and did everything.
CB: Did you hear Bartok play with Dohnanyi in concert?
GS: Yes, I did.
CB: Because there’s this recording on Hungaroton from a radio broadcast
of the Liszt “Concerto Pathetique” and it is just the most amazing thing
to hear…Even though the sound is very poor, it’s wild and wooly.
GS: I’ll tell you. I heard them play the Bach C Major Concerto for 2
Pianos. That was something. The phrasing and accents were totally free,
for their own reasons.
FR: Who did Bartok study with?
GS: Istvan Thoman.
FR: Cziffra attended his master classes and raved about him...
tremendous inspiration. He talked about how Liszt played various pieces.
GS: Dohnanyi studied with Thoman and he was very good. He talked about
interpretation and ideas... he did not perform or illustrate.
FR: When you studied with Bartok, what were the pieces you worked on
GS: Everything! My first lesson was the Mozart C Minor Sonata and the
Brahms B Minor Rhapsody. I just arrived; he said” Just play”. I sat down
and played the Mozart Sonata and he said” thank you very much”. As a
pianist, Bartok had an absolutely even sound. He played Debussy like
nobody does and he played Bach better than anyone. It was incredible!
CB: Was it his breath of musical taste? On this Hungaroton compilation
there was a fragment of the Bach G major Partita which was fascinating.
GS: I remember him in that piece very well. This is Bach as he should be
played. Whereas today it is square…Bartok was more musical than anybody
else. Unfortunately there are very few recordings of him. Of course,
there is the Kreutzer with Szigeti.
FR: I have some LP’s of him playing his own music.
GS: The Allegro Barbaro is very good…the Suite op14…the playing is
superb…really very special.
FR: I’m sure when Bartok played Bach he probably made textual
emendations too…adding octaves, doubling lines…
GS: Bach on the harpsichord is one thing, on the piano, it’s something
CB: Besides Bach, what other composers or works were memorable
interpreted by Bartok?
GS: Bartok’s Liszt was very interesting. FR: I can imagine, rather I
CB: What pieces of Liszt did you work with Bartok?
GS: The Sonata.
GS: I played it for him and he said” Thank you very much”, then he sat
down and played it.
CB: The entire piece?
FR: What was it like?
GS: I couldn’t believe my ears. Really, it was indescribable; let’s just
say I never heard anything like it.
FR: It must have been like Rosenthal’s description of Liszt’s playing
“How did he play? “As no one before him and probably like no one after
GS: That’s very good. You know many years ago I lived in the Great
Northern Hotel and I heard the most amazing piano playing coming from
one of the rooms. I didn’t know who, but it was Moritz Rosenthal he
lived in the room directly below me.. He must have been in his eighties.
I was also at his last recital in New York, but we were discussing
Bartok. He played Chopin Etudes too... wonderful, romantic. Very, very
true to the text but it was very free.
FR: When you were studying with Bartok was it natural for you to try to
imitate him or were you enough of an individual to be away from his
GS: I’ll tell you something. I was very rebellious at nineteen. I went
my own way. But all Bartok’s students copied him. Instinctively or
intentionally they just imitated him. I tried not to, I managed for a
while, but after a time, I followed. He had his own way of playing. I
have all these books on Bartok. When discussing his compositions, many
of them are total nonsense. He was always a tonal composer, never
bitonal, never polytonal, never atonal. You know the Bagatelles, by chance?
CB: No, I don’t.
GS: Very well, look at them. 14 pieces. He wrote them in 1889, in Paris.
In them, Bartok gives us everything that characterizes his musical
language. The first Bagatelle is written, for instance, with the top
line having four sharps and the bottom four flats. Many people today
view this as a movement towards atonality. Not at all, it was the
fashion to use sharps and flats in this way in a key signature and
Bartok wrote in this way. Now I see in books that” in the 1920’s this
was considered an avant-garde bitonal piece” and so forth. But both
these lines are actually in C. Bartok used a lot of notes but they are
always functional. He had inclinations towards chromaticism and
polytonality but his music was always rooted in tonality. I told you the
story about the “Allegro Barbaro”.
FR: At the party, but it is worth repeating. GS: Well in 1910 in Paris
there was a concert of Hungarian music and the critic in the paper the
next day said “an evening with the two barbarians” meaning Bartok and
Kodaly. So Bartok, who had a sense of humor, changed the title of the
piece from “Allegro in F Sharp” not major or minor to “Allegro Barbaro”
CB: I guess that would be politically incorrect today.
FR: I’m assuming you heard Bartok play his own music.
GS: All the time.
FR: Was it romantic or was it the way it is performed today?
GS: It was romantic in a sense but it was not the way it is played
today… where there is little pedal and it is spiky. Today all the
dissonances between the major notes or in a chord are accented...
exaggerated... listen to Beethoven’s first Symphony (Sandor demonstrates
on the piano). Look there is a chord here with a G sharp... if I play it
like this you hear the dissonance, but who would bring this out? No one.
But in Bartok they over exaggerate the dissonance…playing them
fortissimo when they should be mezzo-forte or piano and the main notes
are not heard. You know Zoltan Kocsis?
GS: I consider him THE Hungarian pianist at present… wonderful pianist,
but when he plays Bartok and not only him…like a savage…Jekyll and
Hyde... only Hyde plays Bartok. It is not how he played his own music.
Can you remember Borovsky?
CB: Alexander Borovsky.
GS: Well, he explained to me forty years ago: It’s written that when you
play Bach, you should never play loud and never play soft, never play
fast and never play slow. That was Bach. That was his style. And there
is still some trace of that “tradition”. But there’s so much vitality to
Bach and to Bartok too. He used to play with that special vitality.
FR: Cyprien is a big fan of your Prokofiev. He said that you are one of
the few pianists who play a real “precipitato” in the last movement of
the 7th Sonata.
GS: That’s very nice of him. I play it slower than most of them.
Richter, who I think was the greatest Soviet pianist, plays it
FR: Did you study any works of Prokofiev with Bartok?
GS: No, I didn’t. I worked on Petroushka with him...what else? A lot of
Kodaly. I heard Bartok play the debut of his Sonata in 1926. I was very
young... it made a tremendous impression on me... I wanted to learn
it...I did every thing to learn it... it wasn’t published…so, I copied
it down from the manuscript... it took me eight months…. The beginning
an incredible number of notes... all dissonant…I studied it with him but
he never explained the work to me.
FR: When you were younger, what other pianists did you like, Hofmann...
GS: I was very lucky, I heard them all!
CB: Film directors are always making “Ten films I love more than
anything else lists” Is there a way you could summon up ten pianists or
ten performances that really stand out in your memory?
GS: I can tell you of 10 pianists of whom there’s nobody like today.
There are many fine pianists still, but there is nobody like Hofmann,
Lhevinne, Backhaus, Cortot, Bartok, Edwin Fischer. Did I mention Lhevinne?
GS: I heard Lhevinne many times... Cortot every year... Backhaus all the
CB: What did you hear Cortot or Backhaus play?
GS: Backhaus, for instance, was supposed to be dry. He wasn’t dry at
all, he was not overly flamboyant. Do you know his recording of the
CB: Yes, very well.
GS: Superb... good taste.
FR: His recording of the Schumann Fantasy is terrific.
GS: That’s what I heard Hofmann play. It was indescribable... nobody
cared... it was a shame. Some like blondes some like brunettes or
redheads. But the level of playing was way above today. Martha Argerich
is a wonderful pianist, but you can’t compare her to Cortot or
Rachmaninov. Everything was interesting... everything was memorable...
like you never heard before. Edwin Fischer... interesting, great. Cortot
played wrong notes... who cares?
FR: They were all individuals. Everything sounds spontaneous…as if the
music was being written as they played it.
GS: Exactly! Maybe I can’t count 10. Rachmaninov, each approach was
different. But today approach to music is two-fold, one…”the
competition”, two…the “recording”. And they both require what?
GS: Accurate notes.
CB: No feeling?
FR: No individuality?
GS: Oh yes, you have to play with some feeling but average…don’t be
different…don’t make rubato because “that’s not Mozart’s style”. Nobody
knows that…you know...listen…I heard Rachmaninov play a Mozart Sonata…he
would never be admitted into a competition. I’m not joking. I heard him
play the Dante Sonata of Liszt. Nobody came near it, the quality and
effects were some of the most formidable playing imaginable. I could
talk my lungs out and never be able to really describe it. The main
accent for a performer is individuality. Bartok had it. The public still
loves that kind of real playing, they love it!
FR: I agree. Some people hate it too.
GS: Well, maybe some of the academicians you know.
CB: But it seems that one of the positive sides to recording is that
because of the compact disc, we can have access like never before to
some of the records these people made.
FR: We can hear Busoni play and much more.
CB: That’s great thing.
FR: Do you recall what you heard Hofmann or Rachmaninov played?
GS: I was at Hofmann’s first recital in Budapest. The first item was the
Bach-D’Albert D Major Prelude and Fugue. He played it well, but it was
if he was running his hands over the keys like a Czerny exercise. Then
he played Opus 110, boring, the first three movements, nothing. The last
movement was very well played. Then the Chopin B flat Sonata…absolutely
incredible! When he repeated the exposition of the first movement it was
totally different, but equally wonderful. The Schumann Fantasy...
phenomenal. I never heard a recital like it. But Budapest didn’t like it
at all. He came back two years later and played in a smaller hall. He
played Beethoven Opus110 and the Brahms Handel Variations. I have never
heard an example of contrapuntal playing like that before. It was the
most incredible playing. You know, in Russia he toured for two years and
played everything... over 200 pieces!
FR: Hofmann is one of my favorite pianists. His live recordings are
astonishing. But his studio records are much different when you compare
them to the “Casimir Hall and “Golden Jubilee”…they’re almost chaste in
GS: But they only give an approximate likeness, because of the sound.
Recordings are so much better today; they will give you a better idea of
his dynamics, his color. However there is a difference between the
generation we are talking about and the present time. They made
recordings but it wasn’t the main thrust of what they were doing. The
emphasis was more on live performance. Rachmaninov recorded but it was
different. Today in recording you hear every note. But the essence of
what these pianists did, you can’t change that. You can’t change that.
CB: What do you feel are today’s priorities for recording?
GS: Well, it’s utterly different than live performance. You’ve seen my
book “On Piano Playing”?
CB: Yes, I brought it.
GS: I talk all about this in the book. “Criteria for live performance”.
Number one: each performance must have spontaneity. Personal, not
routine, original, spontaneous. For my money Second: the touch should be
as varied as possible. Third: the tonal palette, the range of dynamics
should be as fine and rich as possible. Fourth: the notes. For
recordings the number one priority is all the right notes. If not they
throw it out. Number two: no extremely soft or loud playing, there is no
microphone that can capture the full range of dynamics a pianists is
capable of. When you play “Funerailles” and start pianissimo and then
build to a great fortissimo there’s no real way to recreate that effect
in a recording. You can suggest it, but it’s nothing like reality. The
pianists dynamic range is like that (Sandor gestures in a large way with
his hands) the recorded range like that (a corresponding gesture). It’s
compressed. I have serious reservations about recordings. In one way it
is wonderful to spread…to let people know, but it is like watching a
film. Do you act in live performance the same way as in film? Not at
all, you should act different. The same with us. I tell my students…you
should prepare two distinct interpretations, one for live performance,
one for canned performance.
CB: How long did it take you to write your book?
GS: It’s a long story. I’ll be very factual. When I made my debut in
Hungary at 18 I had no idea how to play…by instinct or what –have-you.
By the age of 22, more or less, I listened to all these wonderful
pianists. They all were different, they all looked totally different.
But they had something in common too. I think I realized the physical
aspect…the human body is structured exactly the same way…muscles,
tendons. I did research into this. They are all human factors…structural
factors that we all have, whether you are Hungarian, Bohemian, what have
you. Because every culture has something wonderful to advance that is
unique, but I asked. What is the same? I broke my head trying make sense
of it. So, there are fundamentally five movements with a million
variations, very simple to describe. You know I always had these
theories in my mind since then. I talked about but I never had time to
write it down. I was teaching in Ann Arbor (Michigan), I was there about
twenty years, anyway the phone rings, this is so and so from Esquire
Magazine and we heard you are the best piano teacher in Ann Arbor, can
you tell us something about playing the piano. So, I talked to him and
about eight months later an article came out about the “Best of…” the
best shoeshine parlor, the best coffee shop, the best piano teacher,
Gyorgy Sandor with a few lines about me. A year later I get a call from
Schirmer Books. Someone there read the article and they wanted to know
if I was interested in writing a book about piano playing. So, I agreed,
it took me a year to put all the things I had in my mind to paper. The
main idea of the book is how to play the piano in a coordinated way
using muscular strength and the correct muscles. Most people who have
problems…you see so much tendonitis, carpel tunnel…all these things are
absolutely ridiculous and totally unnecessary. Most problems come from
not having the proper coordination. The muscles get tired; therefore you
think the muscles are weak so to strengthen them you overwork them in
the wrong direction. There is a very sane natural way to line up the
muscles to prevent friction and this prevents inflammation and tendon
problems. You know at Juilliard they invited medical experts to lecture
about carpel tunnel and assorted other injuries…totally ridiculous.
CB: Maybe your book should mandatory for the piano students.
GS: That would be too simple. But it could help to prevent these problems.
FR: Did you make a study of posture or height of the bench? Someone like
Glenn Gould practically sat under the piano.
GS: Sitting and height should be balanced. You should be properly
anchored, but be able to move and be flexible. Some pianists are tall
but have short torsos and long legs others the opposite. So, the basic
rules are the same but adjusted for their own psychical makeup. You know
Gould did pretty good sitting like that.
CB: You said you are working on a book about your experiences with
Bartok. How long have you been working on this?
GS: Well, I’ve written many articles already, but I have no commission
from any publisher. I feel it is something important to do. There are so
many things that have been written about Bartok that is wrong. I feel I
must correct this.
FR: Will you discuss your lessons with him?
GS: Yes, many chapters, in detail. Do you know a critic named Griffiths?
CB: Yes, Paul Griffiths of the New York Times.
GS: Well he wrote a book about Bartok…he writes very well but it is
total nonsense. I’ll quote from his book…page 45 talking about his “7th
Sketch”:” Bartok stubbornly insists it is in B Major” and goes on to
analyze the piece…I can tell you it is pure B Major.
CB: You must get a publisher.
GS: Well, I have time.
CB: I know you’ve been a juror in a number of competitions. Do you still
GS: Yes, this year I will. And sometimes, often, they don’t ask me back.
I go sometimes, but I try to make a difference, to encourage, sometimes
you succeed, but not very often.
FR: Cyprien Katsaris was telling me that he and Byron Janis were judges
at a competition in Paris and they picked not the most accurate pianist
but the ones they felt had the most personality. Someone who was not
afraid to change some notes or invert dynamics…take risks.
GS: Whenever I go to these competitions they always say that “we don’t
want the average, we really want personality” but…if you play different,
if you play wrong notes, it’s no good. They don’t dare to play in their
own way. The judges will say that’s not Mozart’s style…not Bach’s
style…it’s very bad. But the fact is there is more and more talent. And
the competition, lets be honest, it is a big business. You know, it’s
not for the performers, not for the public, it’s for the teachers and
they are mortal enemies. It’s true, I’m sorry, I’m not being diplomatic.
But that’s a fact. All the teachers send all their students to the
competitions…which means what? Extremely wonderful, talented young
people preparing so heavily…
FR: To follow what the majority does.
GS: Right. The one who wins has concerts. What do the others do, they
enter another competition. And you know the main attraction for a
concert manager is the new, not the good, the new. The winner of such
and such piano competition, someone new. But the next year that’s not
new anymore. A New York recital should be done ten years later, after a
prize, after a victory. Instead of only after one year.
FR: A young student, Vasily Primakov, that played last year at the
Cziffra Society concert, he won the Petschek Award from Juilliard. He is
only, what, 19 or 20?
GS: I know when I was 19 I got a treat, a pair of socks. I hope he
survives. Today there are more and more talented people. Look at the Far
FR: Another thing is that most of these concerts for the “winner” are
heavily papered. The recital you attended that Katsaris played at Alice
Tully Hall that we co-produced; it was the two of us putting up the
money. So I refused to “paper” the concert. We may have had a smaller
audience than we would have had were we to allow all sorts of “comps”.
But the people that were there paid for their seats. But most of the
concerts you go to, particularly solo recitals, of any kind, the
audience is attending for free.
GS: My manager tells me that’s the nature of the business now. It’s
terrible. People accept it but…I know it’s terrible and it’s going to be
very hard to change it.
CB: In her New York debut, Mitsuko Uchida was very successful.
FR: Did she win the Leeds? (1975 competition)
CB: She placed very high in the Leeds but I know she didn’t win. But her
debut was some five years after that.
GS: She played a lot of concerts all over the continent with orchestra
too…she is a superb pianist…so it was different for her. But the public
is always the judge in these matters. You have people like Kissin or
even Pogorelich…they have something personal…and that is what the public
is drawn to again and again. When Horowitz came to Budapest for the
first time I was a student at the Academy 13 or 14 years old. I had six
tickets in my pocket for some guy called Horowitz. On Tuesday I didn’t
go and gave the tickets away, Wednesday the whole city went. Budapest
became feverish and I could not get any kind of ticket for Thursday.
That is what personality is in the art of piano playing. But of course,
you came to talk about Cziffra.
CB: Did you ever hear him? GS: Well, I knew Cziffra you know; he was
very young and had to make a living in the clubs.
FR: Right, I understand he was also the bouncer on occasion too.
GS: The what?
FR: The bouncer. When people would get rowdy he also used to…you know.
(When I met Madame Cziffra in February 2003 she told me Gyorgy was a
boxing fan and, indeed, his duties included bouncing in the nightclubs
and bars he played in during the 50’s. She told me his nose was broken
GS: Yes, I can imagine. But he played with another pianist called
Kovacs. Kovacs was an excellent pianist; he came to the States, by the
way. I don’t know what happened to him after that. (This is a bio from
Kovac’s only LP, it is given here verbatim from the jacket) "Stephen
Kovacs was born May 30, 1907, in the town of Satoraljaujhely in the
Tokaj wine district of Hungary (any foolhardy attempt to pronounce Mr.
Kovac's birthplace may result in a permanent speech defect). [Editor's
note: except for native Hungarians. This is an insulting comment about a
language that just happens to be different from English.] He attended
the Franz Liszt Royal Academy of Music at Budapest, where he studied the
piano with Imre Keeri-Szanto. In 1936 he participated in the Third
International Competition for Piano and Voice at Vienna, where he placed
fourth out of two hundred contestants. Second place in this same contest
was won by a certain Emil Gilels. More recently Mr. Kovacs has toured
the United States as a leader of four and three piano ensembles under
Hurok and the NCAC. At present he leads the American Piano Trio." This
Elektra LP was issued in 1956. (Editors note: Cziffra also studied with
Keeri-Szanto at the Liszt Academy. Possibly in the same class?)
CB: You know, that is the first time I ever heard of Cziffra playing as
a team with someone. I was always under the impression he played by
GS: Cziffra? Not at all, for a whole year, I didn’t know how old he was
then. Maybe 12 or 13. He left Hungary in 1956. How old was he then? FR:
He was born in 1921.
CB: So he was more than 30 years old.
GS: All his youth he went to the clubs to have fun. He played the
“Flight of the Bumblebee” in octaves. He did a fantastic “Don Juan
FR: No kidding!
GS: He played the most demanding works ever, he was not known. He was a
very talented young pianist with a gypsy approach and after he left the
country, he became world famous.
FR: He had a terrific debut in Vienna in 1956.
GS: I’m sure.
FR: And then he went to Paris and supposedly the story goes the audience
ripped the seats out in the hall…pandemonium.
GS: Cziffra was phenomenal…a very interesting character. A nice man,
humble…a very simple person, good natured. He was world famous, playing
all over Europe. When I knew him it was in the thirties. I didn’t hear
him play until I heard him in London playing a Mozart Concerto.
FR: I’m assuming this was in the late 50’s or early 60’s. I did not know
he played Mozart.
GS: You know, it was superb.
CB: Do you remember what concerto he performed? GS: I think it was the G
FR: Wow, do you recall if he improvised a cadenza or which one he used?
GS: No, I’m sorry I don’t recall. I only heard him play once after that
in South America. I’ll tell you the story, Cziffra was supposed to play
with his son conducting in Argentina and we are waiting for the concert
to start and finally someone comes out and says the performance is
cancelled. What happened? It seems there was an argument and the usual
conductor of this orchestra slapped Cziffra and there was a fight. But
the concert did go on and he played. I heard later that Cziffra said
that Argentines were pigs and this conductor hit him. He never played in
South America again after that. Another interesting Hungarian pianist,
who also became a legend and a conversation piece, was Nyiregyhazi. You
FR: Yes, I know his playing very well. When I was younger I was bowled
over by his records, but not so much anymore.
GS: He was a very strange character, a child
prodigy…freakish…wonderfully precocious. I heard him in Budapest in the
20’s or 30’s. He played the Liszt Totentanz, not an easy little piece. I
vividly remember one of the variations were there are very fast
fortissimo repeated notes…we all struggle with different fingerings, but
he played it with one finger…like an asphalt digger…a pile driver. With
incredible power and energy…it was spectacular.
FR: We would like to talk about your career;
GS: My career? It’s a long one.
FR: Were your parents musicians?
GS: No, they were musical. They had five children and all of us had to
learn an instrument. My older sister played the piano.
FR: When did you start to play?
GS: About the age of six. As I said my older sister was already
studying…she gave me lessons for about two years. I then enrolled in a
private music school, Fodor for about seven or eight years and finally
with Bartok for four years.
FR: We know, recently, Gregor Benko (founder of the International Piano
Archives) interviewed you for a Josef Hofmann documentary. He told me
that you auditioned for Hofmann at Curtis, but you had an injury. When
GS: Not quite. Josef Hofmann was the President of the Curtis Institute.
He was the greatest pianist of all of them. He came to Budapest to give
a recital and nobody paid any attention to him. He came back two years
later and played in a much smaller hall. And at this time a friend of
mine, who knew him…Hungarian. He told me why don’t you play for him and
try to get a scholarship to Curtis.
FR: How old were you at this time?
GS: 15 or 16.
FR: So you had not studied with Bartok yet?
GS: No, that was before. I did not study with Bartok until I was 18. My
friend arranged for me…we had the same concert manager. He arranged an
audition at one of the hotels in Budapest, so I met him there; he had a
piano in his room. I cut my finger; I don’t know how, the door or
something. But it kept on bleeding. So I played for him…not very long…he
was very polite. I bloodied up the whole keyboard…never seen him since.
Students came from all over the world to work with him.
FR: Cherkassky studied with him.
GS: Yes, that’s right
FR: Godowsky’s son in law, David Saperton was a teacher there also...
Bolet studied with him…Sydney Foster.
GS: Yes, he was the best known teacher after Hofmann. When he left it
was Serkin and now Gary Graffman. So, anyway, that’s the story. He was
not particularly interested in me attending Curtis. Then, luckily I went
FR: Did you also study composition with him?
GS: No, he never…that is something we should clear up. Bartok never,
ever taught composition to anybody, anybody who says they were taught
composition by Bartok is imagining things. He did teach theory once in
the summer in Austria, but it was suspended because there were not
enough students. He never wanted to teach composition, I never asked him
why. Besides in Budapest we had two composition teachers. One was
Kodaly, a super teacher, very systematic, I worked with him before I
went to the academy and he was the one who suggested I talk to Bartok
about lessons. I was brought to Dohnanyi, but I had to wait a year and a
half to enter. All us young Hungarian geniuses were expected to study
with Dohnanyi. The Liszt Academy accepted students every two years, so,
I didn’t want to wait that long and went to Bartok. I played for him and
he took me on and I studied privately with him for four years and did
enroll at the Academy later. I got my Masters Degree there. Bartok left
to go to the Academy of Sciences in 1935 and I did not see him until I
FR: When did you come to the United States?
GS: In 1939.
FR: Where did you have your debut, in New York…Philadelphia?
GS: It was a very momentous debut. I was very lucky, I must say, because
I was just finishing a tour of Europe in London, March of 1938. I gave
two recitals there. I didn’t speak English. The reviews were wonderful,
but I didn’t know it. From that it was arranged that I would play in
Carnegie Hall in 1939. It was January or February, I should know the
date. In those days there were 7 or 8 newspapers in New York. The only
way to break in was to get hysterical notices, not good, hysterical. I
was lucky, Judson signed me up.
FR: Do you remember your program?
GS: Yes, I remember very well. It was Bach C major Toccata and Fugue,
Liszt Dante Sonata, Brahms Paganini Variations, Schumann Toccata, Bartok
and some Chopin. The reviews were wonderful and I was immediately signed
by Arthur Judson. And after that by Quesada who was the Latin American
CB: He was also Rubinstein’s agent.
GS: Yes, Rubinstein, Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Arrau, everybody. We were
all with Quesada. He never heard me play but he had a hunch…he was a
real impresario. He signed me up and I went on tour in South America. I
met him in Buenos Aires. It was a two year tour.
FR: How did the war effect concert activities?
GS: The war? In those days?
FR: Well, World War II just started and I can only imagine its impact on
GS: It was very tragic. I had a three year contract with Judson, first
signed in 1939, March, I believe. Then I went down to South America. I
was supposed to comeback for a recital in Town Hall (NYC) in October 39.
The war broke out and there was absolutely no contact. In those days you
couldn’t pick up the phone, there was no telephone, cables didn’t go
through. So, there I was no contacts. I asked Mischa Elman who was there
then if he sees Judson when he goes to New York “What should I do”? I
had the date in October which was coming up. I never heard from him. I
kept on touring in South America through those countries. Of course I,
eventually found my way back. I was drafted into the Army…I had the
right to refuse…I was a Hungarian citizen.
FR: They were fighting on the Nazis' side.
GS: That is right, so, I didn’t want them to think I was a spy or an
enemy agent and was inducted and went to boot camp.
CB: When you were in the army, did you manage to keep your playing up?
How did that work?
GS: I’ll tell you
FR: They didn’t make you a cook?
GS: No, that was too elegant. I was put in the field artillery. My first
detail was in Jacksonville, Florida. I was an ammunition carrier for
155MM Howitzers. Do you know what they are?
GS: Well, they were the biggest…the projectiles were 98 pounds each. So,
I was an ammunition carrier for about 2 or 3 months. Then I was
transferred…fortunately, I never went abroad. I played at some shows,
the USO. Well we won the war and I started concertizing and have done so
FR: You know, Charlie and I love transcriptions.
GS: Bartok made arrangements of the Bach trio Sonatas, six of
them…absolutely superb…very difficult. The first movement is all in
octaves ( Sandor whistles the theme) the second all polyphony. Everybody
made transcriptions, but they used their own language.
FR: Friedman, Rachmaninov, Godowsky all arranged Bach. Godowsky arranged
three violin sonatas and three cello suites.
GS: Yes, I know them. He filled them up with a lot of notes. FR: Did you
ever play any Godowsky in concert?
GS: Many years ago, I don’t recall the pieces. I think it was one of the
Java pieces. He was not a great composer, but very intelligent…very
CB: I noticed on your work desk a Kodaly transcription, what other
arrangements have you done?
GS: I made a transcription of the Bartok Solo Violin Sonata for the
piano…the first two movements. For my money that is the greatest piece
written for violin solo. You can’t hear anybody, not Menuhin, Heifetz,
nor anyone…its too big for the violin…the harmonics are impossible. I’ve
heard all the great violinists play it and they cannot do justice to it.
No way…the beginning is too monumental for the violin. Well, it sounds
better on the piano and not only to me. Wait a moment I have a letter
here…read what it says.
FR: I’ll read it; this is a letter from Yehudi Menuhin to Gyorgy Sandor:
“I’m delighted that the premiere of your transcription of the Bartok
solo Violin Sonata will take place in New York. I’m only sorry I shall
not be there on January 25th. I was so impressed with your arrangement
that I hope I can arrange a broadcast of both versions. As one who was
privileged to know Bartok and correspond with him about this Sonata as
well as played it for him, I believe without taking on too great a
responsibility, that you have read so much of the implied harmonic
background that was in Bartok’s mind and which, of course, will never be
fully realized on the violin as on the piano. All my best wishes for
your success. Yours Y. M.
CB: That’s amazing.
GS: He was very generous. I was in London and went to see Yehudi, he was
the one who commissioned Bartok to write the Sonata. I told him I wrote
a transcription and played it for him. He knew right away. You know
Bartok wrote it as a Chaconne, but in Sonata form…unique.
CB: You would think he would be proprietary about the piece when he
GS: He was honest.
FR: Besides the Bartok, Dukas’s Sorcerer Apprentice, the Bach
transcriptions you recorded, the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
GS: I told you the story
FR: Yes, at the party after Cyprien’s concert. (This was a gathering at
Jerome Rose’s apartment after a recital by Cyprien Katsaris at the
Mannes Keyboard Festival)
GS: It is not Bach at all! Like all young pianists, of my generation, I
played Bach transcriptions. What is the most popular piece…the most
famous? The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. I think the first time I heard
it was by Stokowski. I made a transcription of it, played it every
chance I could…it was virtuosic…I made a record for Columbia. So, about
five or six years ago I was in Milan…I met a musicologist from Torino
and we started talking about the piece and I told him I always got a
strange feeling whenever I played the piece…something was not quite
right. He told me about an article by Peter Smith a music professor from
Cardiff, England who examined this. He goes thru the whole piece and
concluded that it was not written by Bach. This may be shocking to you,
but if you, objectively, listen to the music there can be no other
conclusion. Look at the first motif (Sandor whistles the theme and the
subsequent examples) it is written in unison octaves, Bach never, ever
wrote in unisons. He would do one of them, then a stop. That’s the
beginning, the same motif repeated three times, changing registers down
the keyboard, ridiculous. Bach always develops motifs like that…then
comes the most absurd…open parallel fifths for two and a half octaves.
Who does this? Certainly not Bach. To catch the bull by the horns…there
is a score written in German which says Toccata&Fugue in D moll by JS
Bach. That manuscript was written by a fellow called Jonathan Ringk, who
was a student of a copyist of Bach’s. So, if you objectively listen to
the piece it is like the emperor without his clothes. Now in the Fugue
(whistles the themes) there are some ridiculous things too. I have not
touched the piece since and if I did play it again I would say
“attributed to Bach”. This is not my invention…any musician I told this
story to, who investigated it, agreed with me.
CB: That’s an amazing story.
FR: Just think of all the people who arranged it…Busoni, Cortot, Reger
and at least a dozen or two others. What would they think?
CB: Did you ever record the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”
CB: Why not?
GS: It’s not in print anymore…they didn’t ask me. You know I made a
transcription of Bach’s ‘’St Anne Fugue”. Do you know that?
FR: I know the Busoni version. Is it in print?
GS:Yes, Boosey&Hawks. They published the Bartok Sonata too. Bartok
admired Richard Strauss very much. Of course, today he is a passé
composer…in those days he was THE avant-garde composer. Bartok made an
arrangement of Heldenleben for piano.
CB: I read about this. Was the score ever found?
GS: No, it was never found. But the story goes Bartok played it for Busoni.
FR: Besides the letter from Menuhin you have all these wonderful
GS: Yes, there’s Horowitz, Ormandy, Bartok his smiling picture. Isaac
Stern, Menuhin, that’s the Queen of Spain, Frank Sinatra…I have a
beautiful assortment. Again there is Bartok.
FR: You know, these ones of when you were younger you look like George
GS: From far away…I met his sister; Frances and she came right up to me
and said I looked like her brother.
FR: I’m sure you have other photos.
GS: Yes, hundreds
FR: Do you have them in albums or arranged chronologically? GS:
Unfortunately, no…maybe I should.
CB: Absolutely, you should do it…you could hire someone.
GS: Are you looking for a job?
FR: What concerts do you have for the rest of the year?
GS: As you know I played in England with a youth orchestra…the Bartok
2ndConcerto. I’m scheduled to go to Mexico to play the Totentanz and the
Bartok again. I’m going to Germany to play in a special series of
concerts in Husum.
FR: That’s a really interesting place…the concerts are in an old castle
and the repertoire is all offbeat stuff.
CB: What will you play?
GS: My St Anne arrangement, Bartok…Prokofiev opus 45…do you know it?
Really some of the most amazing things he did for the piano. In the
fall…I’ll have to check my book, so I’m very busy.
FR: Maestro Sandor, I would like to thank you very much for talking to
us, it was a very pleasant and fascinating afternoon.
GS: It was my pleasure.
POSTSCRIPT Since this interview from the summer of 2002 Mr. Sandor has
suffered a severe heart attack in December 2002 and his health has
declined noticeably. This makes this interview and his reminiscences all
the more important to preserve. We only hope he will be able to find a
publisher for his Bartok book, for the same reasons. Gregor Benko and I
visited him in April of this year to film a segment for a Josef Hofmann
documentary. He had just returned from giving a concert/lecture in
Paris. He played Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin and Bartok and discussed
Bartok’s music. He will give a similar program at the Mannes Keyboard
Festival in New York in July. Charles Berigan will moderate the
interview segment of this performance. I would urge all members to
attend this event.