Hunting Hungarians: traveling from Liszt to California’s East Sierra desert

A sad blurry overlooked record store on New York’s Eighth Avenue in the 1970s slept next to a mirrored metallic tobacco shop guarded by a life-sized cigar-store Indian. The Chelsea neighborhood was then an obscure backwater filled with Cuban-Chinese restaurants, their arroz con pollo, pineapple chicken wolfed down after hours in the nearby Elgin cinema showing Surrealist rarities. In a corner sat the vinyl’s warden, aimlessly nursing stale coffee. A summer’s day of drudgery had ended and walking without a destination I felt drawn into his void due to the heat and an odd sensation in my upper spine. Nothing, absolutely nothing could be of interest there, no music to speak of. Ennui exponentially heightened, and glancing down to the cracked linoleum floor I noticed a stack of identical neglected vinyl discs missing their covers, swathed in faded crumbling wax paper that a butcher would reject. The label had been designed, if you will, by a hand stencil, its pianist unknown.

Irén Marik had chosen the most arcane Liszt imaginable, works hardly ever played. Who was this mysterious Hungarian lady? “One dollar!” Cerberus barked out. At home I rushed over to the turntable, dropping the needle onto Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu. . .

benediction de dieu 

Stunned by her playing, a vision came of a woman with short hair, in her thirties, seated at a piano with a perfectly straight back, playing while Bartók himself stood over her to watch and advise. A lost master reappears, more compelling and mysterious, clarifying and enigmatic than any other Liszt player, all in an extravagance of sensuous sound and enlightened way of revealing a rare musical experience. After hearing her play any work, you find it has etched itself into you. How did she understand every detail and emotion, every structure and breath? A lost master had to be found.

But was she alive? In 1980 I met Nicholas Milroy, Etelka Freund’s son (see a previous Brahms post.). He remembered Irén arriving in 1947. He had been an interrogator of captured Nazi officers and then worked for the State Department: Milroy knew an older brother who was a diplomat in Canada: She came to the US on tour and immediately defected to escape the communist regime in Hungary. No word of her since 1947: “Try finding her brother.” The Canadians reported that he had died years earlier, childless.

By 1982 her trail had grown cold. One day on a useless walk before heading home, I stopped inside a venerable long-gone sheet music seller behind Carnegie Hall. On their shelf of recordings lay the Draco logo occupying a cover, with Marik’s name and a new program. And the first image of her appeared:

The poetry dwelling in her Benediction found its boldest contrast in Liszt’s early reaction to the Vallée d’Obermann, written in his twenties while wandering around the nature and culture of Switzerland and Northern Italy, getting to the cradle of European culture long before he would make Rome one of his haunts. Her playing was fearless and ferocious, Liszt’s electrifying spirit incarnate:

Vallée d’Obermann

What awaited one in this new recital program? This discovered album was untouched, except for its plastic wrapper having a four-inch gash on the side, not wide enough to let the record slip out. When I opened it an envelope fell onto my pal: a sealed letter addressed to the New York Times’ chief music critic, Harold Schonberg, reminding him of a rave review he gave to Marik’s Liszt in 1958. Schonberg  tossed it all without a listen,  into a pile dropped off at the shop for credit. The letter explained Marik’s circumstances, surmounting hardships and her health to continue making music at her highest level. It had been mailed to the Times eight years earlier. Was it too late? An address listed the postage-stamp sized Independence, California. More Liszt, Couperin on the piano awaited, and here is her way with Ravel’s Minuet, summoning his soundworld and language:

Ravel Minuet

One had to hunt down an area code first, before the Internet, and then call the local telephone company. An operator gave one listing for “Marik”.

She answered. “Yes, I still play, I teach.” . . .  “Yes, I had lessons with Bartók. . . for about six months.” I miraculously arranged a free flight the next week to Los Angeles. On a Greyhound bus, gliding through the grid of Captain Beefheart’s native Mojave, the melancholy stretches of endless rails tempting with open freight cars, reddish rock formations flashing by that seemed in the heat like mirages of sloping South indian temples, passing foothills of the distant snowcapped Sierra Nevadas, reaching a bench on Independence’s one and only street, arriving after eight hours. Before flying we had spoken a few times by phone. An answering machine cassette found in a box of tapes captured a message:

 

A radiant blonde, her hair snugly tied up, stopped her pickup truck and we headed to fetch Miss Marik at the grocers, as it was her 77th birthday and she was planning a chicken paprikas for dinner, having ordered the right spices from a Hungarian market in New York. During the next four days,  Bartók and others emerged in her playing. She began teaching me. At seven each evening, it was her time to play Solitary, and she would suggest,  “Must you stay? Won’t you go now?”

(to be continued.)

Her first CD recording may be found here.