Mysterious 'Mr. X' pounded the piano till his fingers bled

Adrian Chamberlain, Times Colonist

Published: Saturday, May 05, 2007

Brentwood Bay music scholar Kevin Bazzana was chuffed to discover Star Trek's Captain Kirk likes his new book about a bizarre and obscure pianist.

Bazzana is the author of Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick. Published this year by McClelland & Stewart, the 383-page book is a fascinating, scrupulously researched biography of Ervin Nyiregyhazi (pronounced nyeer-edge-hah-zee).

Who is this musician, you ask? As the title indicates, Nyiregyhazi is almost forgotten today. Yet in his prime, his pals included Rudolph Valentino, Harry Houdini, Theodore Dreiser, Bela Lugosi and Gloria Swanson. The classical pianist began as a renowned prodigy, performing at Buckingham Palace as an eight-year-old and later astounding Europe with performances pounded out in a do-or-die Romantic style.

Kevin Bazzana's biography of a bizarre and obscure pianist has scored good reviews and praise from William Shatner.View Larger Image View Larger Image

Kevin Bazzana's biography of a bizarre and obscure pianist has scored good reviews and praise from William Shatner.

Darren Stone, Times Colonist
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And I do mean pounded out. Nyiregyhazi appears to have been the Pete Townsend of the classical piano, terrifying Steinway representatives with a well-forged reputation for his ultra-fortissimo, string-snapping crescendos. Sometimes the piano keys even became bloodied. Recording technicians would pre-set their levels by striking the piano keys as hard as they could. Yet after he entered the studio, Nyiregyhazi still knocked the needle deep into the red.

"Where explosive volume was required," said 43-year-old Bazzana, "his was beyond anything."

If Bazzana's name is familiar, it may be because he wrote another compelling music biography, The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, published in 2003. A Gould expert, Bazzana also happens to be the music detective who last year sleuthed out a Texas woman convicted of attempting to sell stolen items that once belonged to the Canadian pianist.

But I digress. What about Captain Kirk?

One of the people who helped Bazzana with his 10 years of research for the Nyiregyhazi book lives in Los Angeles. it turns out this guy's worked for years as a stand-in for William Shatner on shows like Boston Legal. This week, he e-mailed Bazzana to say that he'd passed along Lost Genius to Shatner. And apparently Capt. Kirk loved the book. He now even wants to visit Budapest, where the late Nyiregyhazi was born in 1903.

"For a Canadian writer, there is no greater review than 'William Shatner liked my book,' so I am very content right now," said Bazzana, an admitted Star Trek fan.

Nyiregyhazi was both a talented fellow and a deeply weird guy. He could play the piano like nobody's business, could memorize entire scores after playing them once. And yet he had difficulty with the most mundane of daily tasks -- like dressing himself. He drank like a demon (he titled one of his compositions It's Nice to be Soused), drifted into obscurity and ultimately found himself eking out a depressing existence in San Francisco's grotty Tenderloin district.

A sexually voracious man, Nyiregyhazi attracted scads of women -- and the odd man. This despite having a personality that vacillated from meglomaniacal graciousness to volatile petulance. He rarely had anything good to say about other pianists. He suffered paralyzing stage fright. Not surprisingly, Nyiregyhazi was at odds with the music business, hating to be told when and what to play.

Bazzana talked to at least one psychologist who figures Nyiregyhazi likely had a borderline personality disorder. "He was," says the author, "like a toddler."

The pianist married 10 times, often to women he'd known only a short time. His matrimonial zeal was linked to his sex drive. Nyiregyhazi linked his creative passion to his sexual urge, joking that his fortissimo piano antics were an extension of this. While it appears he was a bit of a skirt-chaser, Bazzana says Nyiregyhazi had a very passive personality. Put another way, women were drawn to him like black flies to chocolate-covered tiramisu in the hot sun.

"Even when he was living in his flop house and he had no money, he had this intelligence and talent and charisma that people recognized."

The writer figures the strangest episode in Nyiregyhazi's strange life was the time he performed a concert wearing a peculiar disguise. Certainly it's the most pathetic sequence in the biography. Nyiregyhazi, who'd been down on his luck for 20 years, was hired to play at a Los Angeles hall in 1946 wearing what Bazzana describes as a "silk black hangman's hood." It was a success, but the stage-wary Nyiregyhazi (billed as the mysterious "Mr. X") fled -- despite a subsequent offer to play Carnegie Hall.

Although his career experienced a slight resurgence in the early '80s, particularly in Japan, Nyiregyhazi died in obscurity in 1987.

Was he really any good? Yes, says Bazzana, although his prodigious talent was idiosyncratic. Nyiregyhazi is an acquired taste. A disciple of Liszt, he favoured a late Romantic style now considered overwrought and dated. Volcanic bluster was contrasted by extraordinarily soft passages. Nyiregyhazi didn't even mind hitting wrong notes, dismissing them with the supreme arrogance of a great landscape painter above detailing every tree leaf. (If you're keen to sample Nyiregyhazi's music, there are a few clips on the Internet site.)

Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick has scored good reviews, including an admiring critique from piano virtuoso Anton Kuerti. It will be published in the United States in September, and a German edition is in the works. Apparently the title doesn't translate well -- publishers there are calling it Pianist X.

Meanwhile, Bazzana's publishers in Canada and the U.S. have fielded calls from movie companies interested in looking at the book. Perhaps Mr. Shatner could be coaxed into playing the lead.


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