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.