“Only the Steinway piano provides me with wings.”
Géza Anda was extremely demanding and extraordinarily convinced of himself. The pianist, born in Budapest on November 19, 1921, had reason to be both, even if these traits may have garnered him more admiration than endearment. As a young man who studied composition with Zoltán Kodály and piano with Ernő von Dohnányi (on Wilhelm Backhaus’ recommendation), he was known as a keyboard stud, a technically brilliant interpreter of Franck and Bartók and Liszt who could do on the instrument as he pleased with total ease. Although he also finished his studies to become an elementary school teacher — without distinction but to please his father — the musician’s career was set, and by 1941 he had won two consecutive first prizes of the Budapest Franz Liszt Society and given an auspicious debut of Bach–Busoni, Scarlatti, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy and Liszt at a “Steinway & Sons Piano Recital” on December 2nd of that year.
Perhaps even more importantly, Anda received a potentially life-saving stipend to study abroad, thus keeping him from being drafted into the Hungarian army. In Miklós Horthy’s pro–Fascist Hungary, Anda’s options were either Rome or Berlin — and Anda picked Berlin. In that war-torn city, Anda experienced his first taste of fame when he played Franck’s Symphonic Variations under Wilhelm Furtwängler (who coined the phrase “Troubadour at the piano”) in 1942. Thanks to an attaché at the Swiss embassy and his wife (smitten with Anda’s pianism), who bribed the Gestapo, he was granted a stay at a Swiss spa. Anda “forgot to return” to Germany and found, despite the various Swiss immigration agencies’ best efforts, a home in the neutral state.
From there, he pursued his career with vigor and tenacity, touring and establishing a reputation abroad, country by country. Thoroughly neutral, Anda took his art to anyone who wanted to listen (and pay): Franco’s Spain (knowing it might get him in the soup with U.K. presenters), South Africa, and post-invasion Czechoslovakia. In 1955, he finally cracked the United States with a lucrative 18-city, 18-concert tour. Better still: On return he was finally granted permanent residency in Zurich, ending 13 years of statelessness and bureaucratic hassles.
Anda was an early star of the record world, making his first recordings with Deutsche Gramophon during the War and winning his first Grand Prix du Disque in 1948. Although he is now associated with the yellow label for Bartók and Mozart concertos, his relationship with it — and every other label he signed with — was tumultuous and indeed symptomatic for all of his professional relationships where others could rarely measure up to his standards and expectations. One exception was the relationship with his piano maker, which his hagiographer Hans-Christian Schmidt singles out in Géza Anda: Sechzehntel sind auch Musik: “In the synopsis of his artistic life, [Anda’s] affiliation with Steinway & Sons stands out as a virtually uninterrupted positive relationship. His entire life, Géza Anda never wanted to play on a different instrument; his contract with the company was exclusive. Whoever attempted to convince him to play a different instrument received an unequivocal note to that respect. In a letter to a promoter, Anda writes: ‘I’ve only learned today that you only have a Bechstein Grand at your disposal for my recital in Göttingen. When I signed my contract I assumed that you knew that I only play on Steinways… Should you insist on the Bechstein I would — as much as I would regret it – have to forgo my recital with you. (October 7, 1970)’”
At the heart of Anda’s art seems to be a level of ambiguity. A romantic in Neue Sachlickeit clothing, he had a strong impulsive and even intemperate streak but tamed it with a neat, strict, perhaps pedantic side. Earnestness, not ecstasy was his MO and while there’s some of the firebrand – tempered by his sheer ability – still peeks through in the recordings of the Bartók concertos with Ferenc Fricsay, it is his great sense of control and detachment that makes his Chopin, especially the Op.28 Préludes, (DG, 1960) and the 14 Waltzes (RCA, 1975) so special. Pianist Ivan Ilić remembers being bowled over when being introduced to Anda’s recording of the Schumann Davidsbündlertänze: “They were as much a revelation as the recordings of Haskil and Lipatti; Anda played with unheard-of elegance, moderation, and a luminous quality to the sound.”
The influence of Edwin Fischer and Clara Haskil made Anda discover Mozart anew, which resulted in his most lasting legacy: the first complete cycle of Mozart concertos on record – conducting the Salzburg Camerata from the piano. Through these eminently tasteful recordings, playful but serious, we tend to remember Anda (“I understand nothing of Haydn’s music”) as a classicist. To truly appreciate him, we best see him as the far more complex character and musician that he was. — Jens F. Laurson