The New York Times - Friday, July 22, 2011 - Written by Anthony Tommasini

Improvisation, as Well as Intensity

These days many performers in classical music speak to audiences to share insights and stories. But it is not often that an artist disavows a performance he has just given.

This happened on Wednesday night at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College the New School for Music, when the noted French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris finished a ballistic account of Chopin’s “Military” Polonaise.

The bushy-haired Mr. Katsaris, 60, warned the many aspiring pianists in the audience never to offer an “ignominious” performance like the one he had just given for an exam or a competition; otherwise “the jury will ——,” he said, going silent. Then he made a gesture to slice his throat with his right hand. The audience laughed and applauded.

During this two-week festival the evening recitals mostly come in pairs. Earlier on this night, as part of the Prestige Series that presents younger artists, Gesa Luecker, a thoughtful German pianist, played works by Mozart, Liszt and Schumann.

Then, as part of the Masters Series, Mr. Katsaris, who has had a major, if somewhat unconventional, career and has not played often in America, offered lots of Liszt and Liszt transcriptions, as well as three Schubert-Liszt favorites. He also played works by Haydn, Chopin and his own finger-twisting arrangement of Gottschalk’s exuberant novelty piece, “The Banjo.”

If Mr. Katsaris’s Chopin polonaise was burly and clangorous, there was something compelling about it, if only because he had an extreme concept that he carried through, notes be damned. In a way, isn’t that the definition of a master? A master pianist may or may not be a role model. But a master has reached a point where he knows what he is about.

Mr. Katsaris gave some fascinating performances here, especially in his Liszt selections, played in honor of the 200th anniversary of that composer’s birth. In the murky, mysterious opening section of Liszt’s “Trauer-Vorspiel und Marsch,” Mr. Katsaris played with hushed dramatic intensity. The march section had the relentless force of his Chopin polonaise, but with the notes in place. The atmospheric, harmonically radical “Nuage Gris” sounded here like an anticipation of Schoenberg. In Liszt’s arrangement of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” Mr. Katsaris showed uncommon sensitivity for the orchestral textures the piano evokes.

He remains an individualistic and quirky pianist, even in his facial mannerisms (a few times he smiled at people in the audience while playing) and arm gestures (if his right hand is playing a solo melodic line, his left hand inevitably conducts it).

But in the midst of some curious performances, he showed himself capable of pianistic magic. As a break from the Romantics, he played a crisp, if somewhat too cute, account of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C (Hob. XVI:35.) If you like Haydn crunchy, rather than smooth (to borrow terms from peanut butter), this was the performance for you.

For a long encore, he improvised, having explained to his audience that he regrets the decline of this honorable practice, at which Liszt, Beethoven and Mozart excelled. His improvisation folded familiar tunes (“The Merry Widow Waltz,” “Strangers in Paradise,” the Barcarole from “Tales of Hoffmann”) into paroxysms of piano sound that suggested updated Liszt and Scriabin.

Earlier Ms. Luecker proved a straightforward and sensitive pianist who brought lyrical grace and clarity to Mozart’s Sonata in C minor. Her artistry was at its best, rich with imagination and technical prowess, in works by Liszt, especially the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. In Schumann’s popular “Carnaval,” a suite of character pieces, Ms. Luecker mostly showed rhapsodic flair and lovely colors, though sometimes her breathless tempos resulted in rushed and scrambled playing.

She and Mr. Katsaris could not have been more different. This festival is covering the gamut of approaches to the piano.

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