Cyprien Katsaris is a musical wonder of our time. Born in Marseilles and trained at the magnificent Conservatoire de Paris, Katsaris’ virtuosity is shocking and ranks firmly amongst the finest that have ever played the instrument. Simply put, he is an inspirational link to the past, and has found the rare freedom to express and sing on his instrument. For over forty years now, Katsaris has performed, transcribed, and perfected the art of the musician. Winner of the International Cziffra Competition in Versailles and the Grand Prix du Disque, Katsaris has served on the juries of the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw and the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris. Tonight marks his first 2012 performance in the United States. Below is Part I of our January 4, 2012 conversation with Cyprien Katsaris.
EH: It is the responsibility of the performer to be true to the text. Is it possible for a great performer to surpass the vision of the composer ?
Katsaris: This is a very important question. Some composers have written varied answers. Somebody like Liszt wrote numerous versions of his compositions. Somebody like Chopin, as we know, wrote several variations also. When Chopin would teach, he would even scribble notes on some of his own works. For example, the famous nocturne in E-flat Major (Op. 9 No. 2)has some variants. The last was discovered by one of the past chairmen of the Chopin competition in Warsaw.
Chopin himself, when he would play his own pieces, was always bringing in new changes. And when the same passages would come, he would change the tempo, the dynamics, etc. Therefore, I believe in some flexibility within the information that we have of the composer. We should, however, play the notes the way they are written. If you think of the freedom taken by opera singers in the famous arias, it’s absolutely incredible. They change the tempi, they change the notes, and they even sometimes ask to change the notes of the accompaniment. Of course, we cannot do these things with all piano music, but there should be some room for the re-creation of the music. In Bach, where there are no dynamics, use your imagination! Not everything can be written in a score. A composer like Ravel, who wanted his works performed exactly as written, even with him you need some flexibility!
Rubato is not written by a composer, often because the composer could do it themselves naturally. You cannot play like a computer. We should respect the score, but there needs to be a freedom. This freedom will not be appreciated by everyone. But, you know, even if you play the score exactly as written, it will be called boring by someone. You will be criticized for whatever you do.
EH: How would you compare the stylistic and pianistic writing of Chopin and Liszt ?
Katsaris: I have to admit that there is something very unique with Chopin. He didn’t leave so many compositions. As you know, he only lived 39 years. Some of the music of Liszt is much less interesting than others. Of course, some of Liszt’s music is also of the highest caliber. However, I believe that the music of Chopin is almost always of the highest caliber. Emotionally, there is something about Chopin that is so moving, so special. There is also such variety in his compositions. The Preludes, the Etudes, the Ballades – they are all so different. And if you take a contemporary composer today, I’m sorry, but their etudes are not all different. You have the category of fast etudes and the category of slow etudes. Each Prelude and Etude of Chopin is totally different, but it is always Chopin.
For example, I recorded many years ago the three Piano Sonatas of Chopin for Sony Classical. Isn’t it amazing, even in this so-called ‘minor work’, that the slow movement is in 5/4 time ? Isn’t it amazing that the first musical phrase from this sonata is the theme from Tristan und Isolde ? It’s very, very strange. Liszt said, about the third Etude of Chopin (Op. 10 No. 3), ‘I would give three years of my life to have composed this,’. And I am sure that we could say the same about the third Nocturne of Liszt. At such a level, the people are equal, but I do believe that Chopin, proportional to the quantity of his compositions, might have more great pieces than Liszt. What I am saying might not be fair because Liszt lived many more years and wrote more pieces. So maybe this is a little more delicate to judge.
You know, Mendelssohn said about the seventeenth Prelude of Chopin (Op. 28 No. 17), ‘I don’t know why I like this piece so much, but one thing is sure - I could not have composed it myself,’. I am a big, big fan of Mendelssohn. Not everything is great, but when he is great, it is wonderful. And when you think of some of his greater music, absolutely gorgeous pieces, you think of the qualities of Schumann, of Liszt, or Chopin.
EH: Having grown up in Paris and studied at the Conservatoire, what are some of the prominent or emphasized elements of the French school of pianism ?
Katsaris: In the past years, some fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago, the so-called ‘French piano school’ was more based on the finger-playing; this was exactly against the Russian approach of using more of the arm. Although, I think this depends more on the personalities. If you take somebody like Yves Nat, who had a beautiful sound when he used to play Schubert, Beethoven, or Schumann works – by the way, he also had problems with stage-fright and did not play too many concerts, but if you listen to his studio recordings, there is some beautiful finger-playing there. I believe that with the development of countries, of television, of radios, etc. there is no more national school. You can find French pianists who can sometimes play Russian music even better than some Russian pianists, and vice versa. You hear some Russian pianists who play more Bach, which requires a lot of finger-playing. I mean, all these schools I think are now mixed.
I remember several years ago, in Europe, they used to make fun of Juilliard pianists because they had the reputation of ‘who is going to play the fastest and the loudest’. They did not have the reputation of musical playing. Murray Perahia is an American pianist who is considered very poetic and very musical. But usually, the American piano school that you listen to at international competitions, they don’t have such a good reputation. I think this is a bit exaggerated. Today, I don’t believe in the major differences simply because everybody can listen to everybody. You have Youtube, CDs, etc.
An interesting phenomenon, however, is with the Chinese. They have these great, great techniques, these young pianists, and they keep inviting Western pianists over to teach. They think that the Western pianists can bring something that they don’t have. But I don’t necessarily agree. I have heard some wonderful young Chinese, Korean, and Japanese pianists who have incredible sensibility. They understand how to play a Mozart sonata or a Chopin nocturne, etc. So I think that the Chinese should not have any complex about the musical qualities of their performers.
EH: You were a jury member at the 1990 Chopin competition in Warsaw. Are piano competitions beneficial for the development of talent ? Or are they harming the potential artistry of this generation ?
Katsaris: Well, almost everybody has a first-class technique today (laughs). However, the members of the jury are getting more and more tired of listening to somebody who plays very fast and very loud. I think that we should keep our logic – let’s not use only our common sense. Let’s be fair again. A piece needs high-quality virtuosity, and when I say this, I mean not the academic way of playing a run. You can phrase a run. If I phrase it, it can become musical virtuosity. With somebody like Cziffra, each run – whether we like it or not (and I almost always love it), is expressive. This is what I call ‘expressivity in virtuosity’. Now, if somebody just plays the notes like an exercise, well, it’s like a computer and not so interesting. Maybe sometimes in a piece, you need to play it like that, but sometimes, it needs to be more expressive, you know. So it depends on the piece.
If someone is able to play Feux-follets or Mazeppa, or the Precipitato of the Prokofieff Seventh in an interesting way, it has to be of the same value. It should be applauded at the same level as someone who can play a very simple Andante of a Mozart concerto and can make the music sing and communicate at the highest level. After all, Beethoven said about music, “it comes from the spring of Art and goes directly to the heart,”. So I don’t appreciate when the jury immediately dismisses, refuses or expels somebody because they have great pianistic means. I have experienced this and I hated them and I hated myself. I was at the beginning very open-minded, but it became more difficult trying to keep my ethics. There is nothing easier than sitting down and judging someone else while they play, and there is nothing more difficult than going on-stage and playing.
I remember when I was on the jury of the Concours Marguerite-Long, in Paris. It was about twelve years ago. The young Korean pianist who won the First Prize was just wonderful. He played La Valse of Ravel exactly the way it should be played, with the urge, the devilish element, the sensuality and all that. And then he was the only one who played the Impromptus of Schubert. And it was so beautiful, so emotional ! So somebody who can do both of these things is really great. If somebody can only play very well the Impromptus of Schubert and the Klavierstucke of Brahms, and cannot play some of the other pieces which require musicality and virtuosity, I think something is missing there. After all, to move an audience is more difficult than to impress an audience. So both sides are very important.
EH: At your level, are you ever still concerned with the matter of building more technique ?
Katsaris: My professor, Monique de la Bruchollerie, was a fantastic pianist. Unfortunately, she was in an accident and couldn’t play the piano anymore. She became a professor at the Conservatoire in 1967, and might have been the first female pianist, in 1951, to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. They actually recently found a recording of her playing it at Carnegie Hall, with Ernest Ansermet. Anyway, she used to say, “You have to be very well prepared, so that when you go on stage, you forget the preparation, the mistakes, the memory problems, and you just play from your heart – as though for the first time,”. And she also said that, “The worker has to prepare very much, and perfectly, enough times and as much as necessary, before the artist can express himself”.
I practice a lot. You have no idea. I only stop practicing when I am on an airplane, and even then, there are times when I do it mentally, especially with the fugues. I never stop. I never take holidays. Sometimes, when I have to listen to some music or when I need to sight-read a score, I stop practicing. But I work a lot. The problem that we are all facing is that whatever work you put in, whatever time you spend, there is always a horrible factor of risk, a risk of failure. You can have memory problems, stupid mistakes, but it’s never 100%. There is always this factor of risk. It’s horrible. And I find that with age, I have to admit it that memory becomes a problem as well; technique, no, musicality, no. But if you play in a place with a high reputation, of course you feel that responsibility. You can go crazy thinking of this. When you have fear, you provoke the mistakes.
There is one thing that all pianists tend to forget, and it is very important. When we practice and we practice well, we are actually installing some mental mechanisms - these’ automaticities’. When we walk, we have all these involuntary muscles, but we can walk without thinking about it. We forget that when we practice the piano, we are also installing this kind of memory. When have stage-fright, we are destroying all of this. And really, we create for ourselves this problem. If we were to trust the automaticity that our body has installed, then we would just play. The stage-fright is just a vicious circle(sighs).
EH: A question that I ask every pianist - which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?
Katsaris: Oh, ha! Interesting… I think… I think maybe the first one, because my hands are relatively small. I have to turn the hand more. Maybe this one !(laughs)
Part II with Cyprien Katsaris will be featured in the coming days, where he talks about Lang Lang, Gyorgy Cziffra, and the Beethoven-Liszt Symphony transcriptions.