in: Reviews

February 10, 2009

“Typhoon”: Cyprien Katsaris’s Boston Piano Recital Debut

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In Japan, a “typhoon”; here in the United States, “a genuine lyrical tenor of the piano.” In Germany, “the gods and all the muses of Greece seemed to be with this artist”; and in Greece, “the first Greek pianist to obtain the stature of a Callas or a Mitropoulos.” From the U.K., “a staggering tour de force of sensational pianism”; and from a critic in Russia, “This is a gift from God.”

Then, from the Boston Conservatory’s website: “The great French-Cypriot pianist…enjoys a legendary career and is one of the world’s most recorded pianists. His style of performance and music-making mark him as a throwback to the golden age of pianism, combining keyboard wizardry, color, freedom and spontaneity.”

Who could this be? Cyprien Katsaris, in his Boston debut recital at The Boston Conservatory Piano Masters Series on February 10. His program, given at the conservatory’s Seully Hall, consisted of piano favorites from the 19th century.

Should I have taken my raincoat along? Inside the intimate recital hall with just over 100 seats-all filled- luxuriant sounds from a Steinway piano drenched the audience. Schumann’s popular Arabesque (opus 18) went at higher speed than usual, yet without any of the smallest of details missing. Even the vibrations of the piano strings after a chord had been played lingered in the quiet of the audience, the acoustics of the hall amplifying their effect.

But the devil was not just in the extraordinary details of Katsaris’s playing. Casting each repeated melodic phrase of the Arabesque into a kind of narrative, he told a mesmerizing story. Formidable! But more, much more, was to come in the Schubert Sonata in B-flat Major (posthumous).

Throughout its four life-size movements, the first being unusually long and adventurous, the sonata takes surprising turns, makes dramatic stops, skirts through contrast after contrast, all to thicken the plot. Katsaris wove all of these into his storytelling. A finger arching above the keyboard signaling a poignant moment, a quizzical expression on his face in reaction to an unexpected phrase and an arm gesturing like that of a conductor quickening the tempo, building up to a climax.

One woman whispered to another, “I love the expressions on his face; he looks like he is having a ball!” No doubt about it, Katsaris poured it on, always, though, in the most refined of ways. What a story! No recording could have caught the overall warmth exuding from piano and personality. However, Katsaris had to come up for air after the slow, inwardly and outwardly probing, second movement – he took a big breath, looked at the audience and uttered , “…nice piano.”

Intermission allowed us all to breathe normally once again, so much had this pianist swept us away. Next, came Liszt and Chopin favorites.

Expecting the nostalgic nocturnes and valses of Chopin, I found myself in arid space. Two Liszt pieces and the oft-played The Banjo by American Louis Moreau Gottschalk brought no real change.

I believe many of us were reaching a saturation point. The beautiful, suave sounds that seemed to have been created by felt on strings, the human narratives that told stories, here, worked to opposite effect. I was struck by flashes of folk like passages in Liszt’s Csardas obstiné arranged by the pianist. I listened for American images of this country and the indigenous instrument in The Banjo, but found, instead, more of a “staggering tour de force of sensational pianism” as had been previously.

Still in all, The Boston Conservatory students are truly fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in a master class with Cyprien Katsaris. There is much to learn from him. Not, perhaps, what can be found in the hyperbole of The Review; rather, in being present to see and hear the artist at his best, as he was in performance of Schumann.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

4 Comments

  1. I too attended Cyprian Katsaris’s recital and found certain aspects of the program as incomprehensible as certain aspects of Mr. Patterson’s review. Mr. Katsaris’s very mannered interpretations of Schumann and Schubert left me mystified at intermission as to how such beautiful tone and technique did not propel both pieces into intensely musical experiences. Where Mr. Patterson found “mesmerizing stories” and “storytelling” in both the Arabesque and Sonata in B-flat Major, I found it difficult to follow the plot lines. The Sonata in particular felt so fractured into small parcels of measures that it made it distractingly impossible to hear the larger, musical ideas of the composition and performance.

    I began the intermission almost dreading the second half of the program–wondering what Mr. Katsaris would do to Chopin and Liszt. My companion made an interesting observation that Mr. Katsaris’s performance in the first half was more about his exquisite, and possibly unparalleled, interaction with the piano and less so about the music. But Mr. Katsaris married both his formidable technique and musical interpretation in the second half with Liszt, Chopin, and Gottschalk. Perhaps because I hadn’t been “swept away” with Mr. Patterson and the rest of the audience or “drenched” by “the luxuriant sounds from a Steinway piano” (though a drenching would have been welcome in the oppressively overheated Seully Hall), I found Mr. Katsaris’s playing after the intermission flawless.

    How Mr. Patterson could find the Liszt and Chopin “arid” is a mystery. To my mind, Mr. Katsaris’s interpretation of Chopin was much like how Chopin’s contemporaries described of Chopin’s own playing:

    “His playing was always noble and beautiful; his tones sang, whether in full forte or softest piano.” [Friederike Muller]

    “While listening to these tones, all these delicate shading that follow one after another intermingle, diverge, and reunite toward one and the same same goal–melody–can you not believe you hear tiny voices whispering under silver bells, or a shower of pearly on crystal tables? The pianist’s fingers seem to multiply ad infinitum. It seems impossible that two hands can create such effects of swiftness so calmly and naturally.” [critic of France Musical]

    Chopin emphasized the importance of developing such control (which Mr. Katsaris has) and when Mlle. Muller heard Franz Liszt play, Chopin asked her what impressed her most. She replied that it was his “calmness in overcoming the greatest technical difficulties.” To this, Chopin answered:

    “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has conquered all the difficulties, after one has played a vast quantity of note, it is simplicity that emerges in all its charm as the ultimate crowning reward of art.”

    What would Chopin have thought of Mr. Katsaris’s performance of Gottschalk’s The Banjo? An admirer of Lizst, Chopin nonetheless could not tolerate over-dramatization in music. Once while he was listening as Lizst played a Beethoven sonata, he remarked, “Must he play everything in such a declamatory manner?” Mr. Patterson found a “staggering tour de force of sensational pianism” devoid of any “American images of this country and the indigenous instrument.” I also heard a tour de force but without sensational pianism. The details of the South were very much in Mr. Katsaris’s performance and one only needs to visit New Orleans to realize that not a lot has changed since Gottschalk lived there. There has never been much that is subtle about New Orleans and Mr. Katsaris’s treatment of Banjo was right on the mark and great fun!

    Comment by Mrunk — February 16, 2009 at 5:22 pm

  2. I was not at Cyprien (not Cyprian) Katsaris’s Boston debut concert and cannot comment on the performance. I would like to comment on the totally self indulgent review. It seem the critic needs to compensate for his own inadequacies with a perceived lingustic virtuosity that tries to cover his lack of knowledge (a constant it seems with critics)of interpretation and the individual voice so lacking in our present times.

    Comment by Francis Romano — February 19, 2009 at 11:19 am

  3. I thank Mr. Romano for pointing out the misspelling of Mr. Katsaris’s name. I’m guilty of having relied on Mr. Patterson’s spelling rather than checking the program. I see that since your blog appeared, the Intelligencer has corrected the spelling in Mr. Patterson’s article. Alas, bloggers are not so lucky. We live in electronic infamy as the Intelligencer apparently righteously refrains from editing blogs.

    Comment by Mary Runkel — February 19, 2009 at 8:46 pm

  4. The fault for the misspelling of Cyprien Katsaris’s first name lies with the editor and not the reviewer; it was due to careless checking. However, confusion reigns; see web listings.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 21, 2009 at 3:18 pm

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