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May Day Child’s Play

New York
Yasi Piano Salon, 689 Fifth Avenue,New York
05/01/2008 -  
Music by Edward Grieg, Josef Haydn, Franz Liszt , Fredric Chopin, Louis Gottschalk, Astor Piazolla, arrangements by Liszt, Schurtz, Cortot, Katsaris etc etc
Cyprien Katsaris (Piano)

May Day evening, and the lures of music were literally sirens calling from all directions. A solo recital by Jessye Norman? For May Day, one should definitely listen to the great left-wing composer, Frederic Rzewski. Kurt Masur and Anne-Sophie Mutter are performing at Lincoln Centre, and at a nearby church is a concert of 18th Century music from Mexico. With choices come regrets, but that is New York in springtime.

For myself, I could not resist hearing Cyprien Katsaris again. The French-Cypriot pianist possesses such Promethean talents that nobody can possibly hear him without remembrances of extraordinary music-making. At the same time, a Katsaris concert is equal parts fascination and frustration, which is what happened at the Yamaha Salon last night.

First, though, we must explore his prodigious talents. For one thing—perhaps the major factor—the man’s fingers are so fast, so dizzying, such a whirlwind of sound, that they make the recently acclaimed Lang Lang seem like “Linus” from Peanuts. At the same time, Mr. Katsaris can drop notes like George Soros drops banknotes.. He Mr. Katsaris plays his version of Busoni’s version of J. S. Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue, the heavily pedaled piano chords seem to grab all 88 keys at once, so obviously some notes have to be wrong.

But Mr. Katsaris picks up the bad notes with as much aplomb as he drops them. So much is going on under these hands that one doesn’t have too much time to hear the mistakes.

His second asset—or liability—is that he may be living in the wrong century. When he played the music of Gottschalk or Liszt, one remembered that these 19th Century masters lived to impress. Each wrote stunning compositions of their own, each used ignored “ethnic” tunes (Gottschalk for African-Americans, Liszt for Gypsies), but they were know for impressing. Mr. Katsaris does the same thing. He can get busy and play something beautiful, but most of the time, he simply loves playing, he looks up from the audience, he is chatty, he turns a million phrases at once, and smiles…..and impresses.

No, it is not insightful or weighty, but it is quite wonderful.

On the other hand, Cyprien Katsaris can almost trivialize a concert. At Carnegie Hall or with any orchestra, he sticks to his program, but as his friend Charles Berigan has written, “There is no substitute for hearing him at close range, as in the Yamaha Salon.” True enough, Mr. Katsaris may well have improvised his program the way he improvises at the piano . Like Richter, he didn’t reveal anything in the program, but gave it away after each piece.

So here we began with some Grieg (not especially fortuitous, but tuneful enough), onto a Liszt czardas Katsaris style, a few Liszt arrangements (of Gounod and Schubert), a Godowsky pastiche of Schubert, followed by a real Schubert impromptu.

At one point, Mr. Katsaris laughed that he would only play a short Schubert work, not a whole sonata. And I wanted to shout out, “Why not play a whole piece?” But that was not to be.

In fact, the only sonata played in full was the wonderful ingenuous C Major Sonata, which he dashed off with childlike delight. He showed the same delight in tossing off some music by Astor Piazzolla and then his avatar of another century, Louis Gottschalk. First was Bamboula, which seemed to be played with five hands. The second work incorporated Camptown Races and was equally dazzling.

But then, Cyprien Katsaris is a dazzling musician who unfortunately rarely gets down to business in such an environment. He had performed miracles in his time. He was the composer who took Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth without the choral part, and spent a whole summer making a piano work which included the piano. He can play a Chopin waltz as beautifully as anybody on the stage today. He can also play kitsch or sometimes, as in the Busoni-Bach-Kitsaris toccata transform genius into blurry kitsch.

But mainly, Cyprien Katsaris can turn music into what seems to be child’s play. Charles Berigan calls him “Artist and Outlaw”. He is undeniably an artist But he is less an outlaw than a scofflaw, less a renegade than a digital savant, always on that borderline between creating mammoth castles in his sandbox and tossing the sand into his own endless universe.

Harry Rolnick



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