Mannes College The New School for Music
Franz Liszt: Trauer-Vorspiel und Marsch, S.206 – Nuages gris, S. 199 – Csárdás obstinée, S. 225 N° 1 – Hungarian Rhapsody N° 5, S 244 – Chaconne from Almira (after Handel), S. 187 – Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, S. 203 – La lugubre gondola I, S. 200 – Richard Wagner-Venezia, S. 201 – Am Grabe Richard Wagners, S. 202 – Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (after Wagner), S. 447 – Ständchen, Der Müller und der Bach & Ave Maria (after Schubert)
Josef Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:35
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise in A Major (“Military”), Opus 40 N° 1 – Larghetto from Concerto Number 2, Opus 21 (arranged for piano solo by Chopin)
Louis Moreau Gottschalk: The Banjo (arranged by Katsaris)
Cyprien Katsaris (Pianist)
C. Katsaris (©Anne Paounov-Parc)
Cyprien Katsaris could have been one of the great pianists of the 1860’s or the early 1900’s. He is the ultimate heir of lightning quick, brilliant, bravura showmanship. Alkan, Gottschalk and Godowsky, Horowitz (on his worst days) would have been proud of this melange of the superlative and the slapdash, the demonic and the distorted, the enthusiast and the entertainer.
When I first heard him many decades ago, with a Mephisto Waltz that shattered an auditorium, the feeling was that such a fiery youth would use this incredible technique to plumb the depths, reach the heights. When he told me then, in an interview, that he had taken Liszt’s major challenge–the Hungarian had transcribed Beethoven’s Ninth but without the vocal music–and re-arranged the original piano transcription to include the chorus and vocal lines…well, we had to be impressed.
The Cypriot-French master, raised in Cameroon, started on a high-wire and has never descended to earth. His playing has not gone on a trajectory but remains in startling audiences with acts of sheer daredeviltry. I have the feeling that the audience at Mannes last night–with Mr. Katsaris part orf the International Keyboard Institute & Festival–were perhaps not convinced of the artistry of Mr. Katsaris, but they certainly witnessed a rare two hours of piano.
Rather, one hour of encore-worthy playing. True, some of the music in the first half, devoted to the last works of Franz Liszt, was appropriate for the master of the big sounds. By the second half–more varied and potentially inwardly challenging–Mr. Katsaris retained the strength but lacked the inward vigor.
That first half was rare indeed, much of it dedicated to Richard Wagner. Mr. Katsaris played the arrangement of Tristan with some subtlety, with an arch that gradually gave us the Liebestod, played with actual tenderness. His other “Wagner” was more piecework. At the grave of Richard Wagner, a short work, missed the string quartet and harp with the piano. But La lugubre gondola, based on the Wagnerian funeral procession, was gloomy if not moribund. But Mr. Katsaris was obviously more at home in the showier pieces. His Csárdás dance whopped across the keyboard, along with the rare Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody.
The Chaconne from a Handel opera–the only work demanding score-reading–was like a Busoni reading of Bach. But nothing sensitive was left of the score. It was the kind of bombastic reading for which Liszt might not have disapproved. But–alas–Mr. Katsaris would continue that style in the second half.
Perhaps he gave the game away then with a throwaway reading of a minor Haydn piano sonata. Not that this work demanded a Hammerklavier-style reading. But at the final measure, the pianist lifted his finger to the audience and winked, as if to say, “Oh, well, this is only Haydn. Any child can play it.”
Then it was downhill. Some ostentatious displays of Schubert songs, and an abominable playing of the “Military” Chopin Polonaise. “Military” could have been called “Genocide” or “Slaughter”, the bass notes pounding out like a circus drum, the other notes scattered across the keyboard.
Chopin had apparently arranged a movement from this Second Piano Concerto for solo piano, the kind of double-act for which this pianist excels, though it did little for the Larghetto. The final work was the pianist’s own arrangement of that other showy technician, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. His original Banjo has spirit, vivacity, technical pitfalls and light grace. Mr. Katsaris turned the original into a pastiche of tunes and chords, with a few homages to the original banjo theme.
This was one of those rare recitals where I didn’t want to stay for the encores, since the whole second half had echoed that of a careless encore player, who simply wanted to amuse a good audience. But Mr. Katsaris, always the exuberant entertainer, gave us an improvisation on four tunes (everything from Stranger in Paradise to Offenbach’s Barcarolle). His technique was, as always supernormal, dazzling, gargantuan. But in the process of declaiming his brilliance, he broke, stamped upon and finally pulverized each note with his jackhammer fingers.
Another pianist of this temperament, the late Shura Cherkassky, realizing that he had become a mere entertainer, went on a sabbatical in his late 50s refusing to play another note until he had studied and re-played the standards to sound like music, not percussive sounds. What a shame that Mr. Katsaris’ temperament and success may preclude both the sacrifice and the achievement.