The New York Times - Monday, July 16, 2012 - Written by Anthony Tommasini

Getting the Audience's Attention, and Keeping It - Cyprien Katsaris and Alexander Schimpf

The eminent French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris had serious business on his mind when he took the stage on Monday night at Mannes College the New School for Music and signaled to the audience that he wanted to speak. After greeting everyone Mr. Katsaris said that he wanted to “address the pirates” in the audience. He sternly asked concertgoers to switch off “your little recording devices,” adding that he knew full well that some in the audience would not do so. He asked that those determined to record his performance anyway “please consider” that this act is “almost like stealing or raping.”

The audience seemed stunned into silence. A few people applauded. Then Mr. Katsaris began his program, presented on the first full day of the two-week International Keyboard Institute and Festival, which opened on Sunday night with a recital by Jerome Rose, the festival’s founding director.

In principle Mr. Katsaris was on solid ground. The illicit recording of a performance is a violation of an artist’s rights. And smartphones have made this piracy easier than ever. Mr. Katsaris’s large discography includes many live performances, including the complete Mozart piano concertos with the Salzburger Kammerphilharmonie. So it must be especially frustrating for him to see illegal recordings of his performances end up of the Web. Still, chastising your audience is not the best way to begin a recital.

Regardless, Mr. Katsaris, who played at this festival last summer, is an artist who requires some understanding. For all his pianistic skills and musicianly refinement, he can be an idiosyncratic interpreter.

He began with three late works by Schubert, the Allegretto in C minor and the first two of the Drei Klavierstücke, in performances that demonstrated both the alluring and the curious qualities of his artistry. He gave an undulant and searching account of the Allegretto, and brought rhapsodic flair to the restless first Klavierstück. But at times, in drawing expressive nuances from Schubert’s melodic lines or playing dotted-note rhythmic figures, Mr. Katsaris displayed a freedom that verged on casualness.

Turning next to Beethoven’s familiar “Pathétique” Sonata, Mr. Katsaris seemed unsettled at first. In the grave introduction to the first movement he played with somber restraint and deep, rich sound. But throughout the bustling main section little runs and dramatic timings seemed off.

When he finished the movement Mr. Katsaris, who is 61, turned to the audience and said, “Memory is not the best friend of getting old,” and playfully warned, “Watch out for memory, everybody.”

If memory was the problem, he had no similar trouble in the slow movement, played with glowing sound and lyrical poise, or in the final rondo, dispatched with delicacy, clarity and brio.

After intermission he spoke again, this time to read — most elegantly, first in the French original, then in an English translation — the poem by Alphonse de Lamartine that inspired Liszt to write his magnificent “Bénédiction de Dieu Dans la Solitude” (“The Blessing of God in Solitude”). His performance captured the mystical flights and teeming intensity of Liszt’s visionary work.

Mr. Katsaris, who is also a composer, concluded with his own arrangement of Liszt’s popular Piano Concerto No. 2 in A for solo piano. With the orchestral music folded into the piano part, some of the concerto’s combative David-and-Goliath drama is lost. The trade-off is that the concerto comes across as an integrated and colossal piano piece.

Some big climactic passages sounded cluttered and dense, like the episode where, in the original, the piano and orchestra join forces for a triumphant march rendition of the main theme. Still, making this bold arrangement was inspired, and Mr. Katsaris received a deserved ovation.

On most days of the festival there are two recitals. On Monday, as part of the earlier-evening Prestige Series, the fast-rising young German pianist Alexander Schimpf, 30, played an impressive program. He opened with Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G in an exquisite performance that found a judicious balance between lyrical freedom and articulate, dancelike tempos and touch. He was equally fine in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata, Scriabin’s Five Preludes (Op. 74) and a beautifully colored, crisp and lively account of Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin.”

Mr. Schimpf did not speak to his audience. But during the intermission of Mr. Katsaris’s recital, he chatted amiably with audience members who had heard him earlier. The festival attracts many piano buffs, who eagerly take in two recitals a night.

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