Classical Music Guide Forum - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - Written by Donald Isler

Cyprien Katsaris Recital - IKIF

Liszt: Trauer-Vorspiel und Marsch, S. 206
Liszt: Nuage Gris, S. 199
Liszt: Csardas Obsintée, S. 225
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. "Héroïde-élégiaque," S. 181
Liszt: Chaconne from "Almira" (after Handel), S. 181
Liszt: Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, S. 203
Liszt: La Lugubre Gondola No. 1, S. 200
Liszt: Richard Wagner - Venezia, S. 201
Liszt: Am Grabe Richard Wagner, S. 202
Wagner/Liszt: Liebstod from "Tristan und Isolde", S. 447

Haydn: Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI: 35
Schubert/Liszt: Ständchen
Schubert/Liszt: Der Müller und der Bach
Schubert/Liszt: Ave Maria
Chopin: Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1 (Military)
Chopin: Polonaise in E Flat minor, Op. 26, No. 2
Chopin: Larghetto from Concerto No. 2 (arranged for piano solo by Chopin)
Gottschalk/Katsaris: The Banjo

Earl Wild would have loved this.

Those readers currently engrossed in reading the late pianist's lengthy (over 800 pages) and controversial memoirs (he actually claims that a very accomplished musician I knew was a kleptomaniac!) know how well Wild appreciated the Romantic pianist's duel roles as artist and entertainer. Which is also a very good description of Cyprien Katsaris.

It is a pleasure to see someone who is as comfortable appearing before an audience as is Mr. Katsaris. He seems happy to be on stage (which he leaves only at the end of each half of the program) and he clearly loves playing the piano. If Mannes College did not close the building for the night after his recital he might still be there. He prefers not to have applause between certain pieces, so as to play them as a group, but he is happy to get up, bow, and make impromptu comments at other times. He finds it a waste of resources when he is playing with only one hand, so he conducts himself with the other. He is an exuberant but sensitive performer with a big technique, and he never plays a note without a musical idea and context behind it.

This was particularly impressive in the Liszt works he played on the first half. Poor Liszt playing can sound like noisy, hollow rhetoric, but that never happens with Mr. Katsaris. Every nuance is thought out, expressive and under control, and he has a wonderful command of dynamcs from very soft to pummeling the instrument into submission without ever making an ugly tone. The Csardas rhythm was obstinate indeed, and in Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort (Sleepless, Question and Answer) one experienced incessant tossing and turning. The Wagner pieces at the end of the first half were played with a wonderful understanding of color in harmonic modulation.

I don't think most pianists would play the Haydn Sonata in such a light, fast and Romantic manner as Mr. Katsaris, but it was nonetheless delightful, and it sure beat an overly serious and dry interpretation. Hearing such unusual things as Mr. Katsaris changing the voicing in repeats, sometimes bringing out the top of left hand chords instead of the melody, brought back happy memories of the late, lamented Shura Cherkassky hunting for middle voices in Mozart Sonatas.

The Schubert/Liszt pieces were wonderful, most especially the filigree lines in the Ave Maria which Mr. Katsaris wove while playing the melody nobly.

After playing the first Chopin Polonaise listed on the program he announced that, because of time constraints, he would not be playing the second one. He also warned students in the audience NEVER to play the first Polonaise in a competition as he had! Everyone got the point. It was so free-wheeling, tempo-wise, and he had such a good time playing it "his way" that it might not be "acceptable" to some people. One could argue that, though Chopin was one of the greatest Romantic composers, there is also a classicism in his music that is not necessarily improved by unlimited use of rubato. Much the same thing might be said about the way in which Mr. Katsaris played the slow movement of the F minor Concerto, in Chopin's own version for solo piano. But one could not say a word against it otherwise, for it was tonally gorgeous, and had every other element perfectly in place.

Mr. Katsaris concluded the official program with his verison of Gottschalk's Banjo, played at a blistering speed. Then, after making the very legitimate point that classical pianists no longer know how to improvise, he improvised. With shimmering passagework, octaves and other elements available in his large technical arsenal, he "dropped in on" what sounded like the Totentanz, the Ride of the Valkyries, the King and I, the Merry Widow, Tales of Hoffman, and probably a few other things I didn't recognize.

It was a wonderful, and quite unique evening!

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