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Born in Marseilles and trained at the magnificent Conservatoire de Paris, Cyprien Katsaris ranks firmly among the finest that have ever played the instrument. 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. Below is the transcript 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)
(The great pianist then proceeded to rip through various passages of that etude, never missing a note.)
EH: What are your thoughts on the Chinese phenomenon, Lang Lang ?
Katsaris: I met him when I was invited to play at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Lang Lang was very kind, and I liked him a lot. We played a concerto by a composer who was imprisoned during the Mao Tse-Dung era. Lang Lang played the first piano, I played the second. There was also Louis Lortie, Vladimir Feltsman, Philippe Entremont, and others.
About Lang Lang, I think it is absolutely great. In China, it is the biggest fashion now to be learning the piano. They adore pianists. They say that there are 25 or 30, even 50 million people learning the piano right now. I think this is just incredible. When I play in China, it is very moving to see all the young people in the audience. I was there on January 1st with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. There were so many children in the audience !
I am a fan of Lang Lang. I know many people don’t like him, but I think that these people are simply jealous. I think it’s fantastic that he has reached his level at such a young age. And he deserves his success. He is a very good musician. I heard on French television once his playing of the Trout Quintet by Schubert. It was wonderful. I think he is a superior being, a wonderful being, and a wonderful musician. Who is playing today and getting unanimity? I think every Chinese person should be proud of Lang Lang. He has he brought many people, not only in China, to Classical or European music.
EH: Another controversial figure - you won the International Cziffra competition at Versailles in 1974. For our younger readers who have never heard or read his story, who was Georges Cziffra , the man and the artist ?
Katsaris: Cziffra was my first pianistic shock. In ’62 or ’63, when my mother used to take me to the concerts in Paris, I will never forget the concert when he played the Hungarian Fantasy and First Piano Concerto of Liszt. He became my idol immediately. I always felt that all other pianists belonged to one group, and then there was an extra category which was for Cziffra. He was totally different from the others. He used his incredible virtuosity in an expressive way – whether it was revolt, whether it was anger, tenderness, or serenity. He was able to do so much with the wide range of whatever he played.
I know that you are aware of the record he made of classical, baroque, and pre-classical music. The French radio station, France Culture, asked me to take some records that I liked, about 25 years ago, and play them on the radio. I played for them two Scarlatti sonatas, performed by Cziffra, without telling them who the pianist was. They broadcasted it, and people began asking, “Who is this pianist who plays with such refinement ? How fantastic is this playing ?!”. And when I told them it was Gyorgy Cziffra, they nearly fainted.
He had that terrible label as a circus-virtuoso pianist. And when the critics and journalists would spread these rumors about him, people simply did not accept that he would be able to play a Beethoven or Mozart sonata beautifully, or a piece by Jean-Philippe Rameau or Jean-Baptiste Lully well. During these years, nearly all critics and pianists were criticizing his playing. And now, nearly twenty years since his death, I notice that there are many reviews about how great his records are. There are very few people who are willing to openly speak about all the good things about Cziffra. I think this is absolutely insane. It’s a little bit like what happened to Franz Liszt.
You know, it took Liszt more than one-hundred years to be recognized as a great composer. In the history of music, Liszt is the composer who had the widest range of compositions, the biggest variety. The same man, as you know, wrote music that was inspired by the Gypsy music of his country, music from many other countries, not to mention his transcriptions and the music that was inspired by the poetry of Lamartine, Goethe, Victor Hugo, and many others. There was also the homage to Wagner, the Lugubre Gondola, for example. In one of his letters, Liszt wrote that the first Lugubre Gondola, he wrote in five weeks as a premonition before the death of Richard Wagner. And what about the chorale music, the Requiem of Liszt, the Legende of Saint-Elisabeth, all those beautiful Lieder which were recorded by Fischer-Dieskau and Barenmboim. I myself made a record with Margaret Price, the great British singer, some twenty years ago.
Liszt also wrote avant-garde music before anybody else. Do you know Nuages gris ? When you think of the two last chords in this piece, imagine a piece that ends like this ! It is almost like an interrogation. Where do we come from ? What are we doing on this planet ? Where are we going ? Liszt wrote these kinds of harmony before Debussy, before Scriabin, and before Schoenberg. So Liszt was really a genius.
Returning to Cziffra, it took so many years after his death to be recognized. You know, when he was living, he was a superstar in France, in Japan, and in Italy. And I am very, very shocked and angry, that for whatever stupid reason, he did not have a big career in the United States of America. For whatever reason, which is a mystery to me – although I have some ideas of why - he didn’t make it in the States. And this is a big shame. I know some piano fans who don’t even know his name.
When I was playing in New York last July, just before my master-class and after my recital, I was trying out the piano. And there was a lady who was sitting in the hall, and we spoke a little bit. She said that she had come from another state to listen to this music festival, the wonderful keyboard festival at Mannes which is designed by our wonderful colleague, Mr. Jerome Rose. And when I mentioned to her the name ‘Cziffra’, she didn’t know it. I told her that Cziffra could make a sound at the piano that even Horowitz could not make. And she wrote the name down to buy some CDs.
I heard Horowitz three times. The first time was in the 70’s in Florida, the second time was at the Kennedy Center, and the third time was at the MET in New York. The first time I went to say hello to him, I had just a few words for him. I said to him, “Mr. Horowitz, I am a pianist and I play the transcription of Cziffra, Flight of the Bumblebee. And he said, “Ahhh…… Gyorgy Cziffra,”. I could see on his face that there was some kind of astonishment; of course, he knew exactly who Cziffra was.
Cziffra was an incredibly sensitive man. He was able to have tears, the emotion in his eyes, when he looked at a flower. He was an incredibly tender person, with his friends, with pianists. He was a very kind, very humble, very, very humble person. And he was incredibly generous. He was a wonderful personality who suffered a lot when his son died.
I knew his son well, actually, and even played with him twice the Tchaikovsky No. 1. He was a very cultivated person. But unfortunately, he had the same first name as his father. He was a very good conductor. The musicians of the orchestra were not very nice to him at all, however. It was kind of like revenge because of who his father was. And they just wouldn’t accept him because of this. One day, when his wife went back home, the house was on fire. I don’t know what he was trying to do, maybe light the chimney, and maybe he tried with alcohol, but he was burned. Since that time, Cziffra, the father, started going down. He suffered a lot. That was his only son. Cziffra suffered a lot, as you know, in his youth. There were the Nazis, then the communists, I mean, it was a very, very hard life.
In France, Cziffra was a superstar, because thanks to God, the hall was always full at his recitals. The concerts were always sold out and he received huge ovations. It was like there was a divorce between the critics and the audiences. And I noticed that the comments of the pianists were simply of jealousy - absolute jealousy. Some of the pianists – and please allow me to not say their names – are now raving about Cziffra. So there was a huge hypocrisy. This was very similar to what happened to Liszt. These personalities are too big for the people of this planet. Liszt was too much, Cziffra was too much. So, yes, he was very aware of the fact that reviews were putting him down, that they were saying he was more of a virtuoso than a musician, which was total bullshit – excuse me for saying that. But Cziffra suffered a lot because of that. It was wrong, wrong, wrong.
I met Cziffra in ’74, through a lady friend who was a music critic, Madame Delisle. She was an organ player and had also translated into French some German music books by Arnold Schoenberg. She asked me to play for Cziffra and his wife in his living room. That’s how we met. And it was such a great honor. I asked him to give me the score of the Flight of the Bumblee transcription, because I wanted to know how it was possible, and he answered that he had never written it down. So he asked his son to listen to the recording and to write it down. It took him several months.
There is something that I want to tell you that people don’t know. He made some parts more difficult than what is now published and played by all those young pianists. For example, there is a trill in the middle (E-F-E-F), and he wanted me to do it in double-notes. I do it with one hand, but he did not do this himself. So the official published version is in some parts actually easier than the Xeroxed, autographed copy that he gave me. He invited me to play it at his television appearance. It was this fantastic television show called The Great Chessboard. It was three hours of popular live television, beginning at 8:30 p.m. It had one main guest, who would then invite their own guest. So he invited me to his first appearance to play the Flight of the Bumblebee.
EH: One of Cziffra’s most often criticized recordings is the complete set of Chopin Etudes.
Katsaris: This is one of the most incredible records ever made, by anyone. And my answer is simple. Chopin once heard Liszt playing some of his etudes, and he took the time to write, “I would like to steal his hands from him,”. Chopin was almost dreaming when he heard his etudes being played in such a way by Liszt - and not in the academic way. I believe that if Chopin heard Cziffra’s recording of the Etudes, there is a high probability that he would have adored them because it sounds nothing like the usual exercise-type way that people are used to hearing played.
EH: On the subject of recordings, you have recorded the Beethoven-Liszt Symphony transcriptions. What did you learn about Beethoven from studying his symphonies, and about Liszt’s understanding of the piano and the orchestra?
Katsaris: When I was a little boy, we used to live in Cameroon, a French colony in Africa. One of the pieces that my mother owned was the Pastorale Symphony, which I listened to a lot. And I wanted always to produce those sounds with my own fingers. Of course, I was shocked when I came across the Liszt transcriptions. It took me ten years; the recordings happened in the ‘80s. I played the Pastorale more than twenty times in concert, and I played the Eroica exactly seventy-nine times. I played both the Pastorale and the Eroica in New York, Paris, Vienna, and in San Francisco in the ‘80s. After the 79th time, I called my agent and told him to change all the programs because I could not play it anymore (laughs).
I wanted to understand how Liszt was able to do such an incredible task. I compared almost every single note from Beethoven and Liszt, and I was astonished by the work of Liszt. I also discovered that there were actually more notes from the orchestra that could be made even closer to the spirit of the original Beethoven score. And it was a big problem for me because I had to find new pianistic solutions for this. I should have actually written Beethoven-Liszt-Katsaris, but I didn’t do it because I wanted to pay my respect to Liszt. I was trying to get as close as possible to the original text of Beethoven. Many times, this was not necessary because the Liszt version was already fantastic.
Did you know that aside from the Liszt-Wagner transcription of the Tannhauser overture, that there is a transcription by Wagner himself ? I made a CD with Sony Classical, some twenty years ago, called Wagneriana, which has transcriptions of Wagner by various people with the exception of Liszt. Anyway, the Beethoven-Liszt transcriptions were probably the best schooling for me because it developed my sense of phrasing, of coloring, and the sense for various levels of piano playing. It helps you with anything that you play after that.
Take, for example, the first Ballade of Chopin (Op. 23). The piano is a percussive instrument. If you don’t know the piano and don’t move the hand, it does not sing. But if you do sing it from the inside and if you think of it like the bow of a stringed instrument, allowing it to move in the natural direction of where it wants to move, then you can direct the phrasing. You get the right rubato, the right phrasing. You feel it inside as a singer. We should never go against the natural needs of the hand. And what I heard from the Beethoven symphonies - sometimes it was a wind instrument, other times a stringed instrument, sometimes a brass - I now use for solo piano. You know, Mr. Horowitz is supposed to have once said in an interview with the New York Times that the Beethoven-Liszt symphonies are the greatest piano works ever.
EH: In your opinion, is the great tradition of the Golden Age of pianism dead ?
Katsaris: About twenty or thirty years ago, there was a tendency in the judgment of piano fans and even pianists-judging colleagues. They were always saying that the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of piano playing - Ignaz Friedman, Moriz Rosenthal, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann - all these people, that they used to have something that is missing in our days. I think this was true in the 1960’s, 70’s, and maybe part of the 80’s. I think that piano playing became, in my humble opinion, more and more academic. One reason for that, I believe, was the misunderstanding of the so-called rubato.
In the time of Chopin, Liszt, and Thalberg, according to what we know about their playing through their pupils and the writers who listened to them, they used to play with a lot of freedom, with fantasy, with a great sense of singing at the piano. You know, Chopin used to tell his pupils that each finger should be a singer, and somebody like Sigismund Thalberg studied for several years with a professor, Manuel García.
Garcia was the number-one singing professor in Paris, and he was the father of two famous singers, Pauline Viardot and Maria Malibran – the two sisters. Thalberg studied singing and bel canto with him, and this is quite amazing. For such a great pianist like Thalberg, it was that important to be able to make the piano sing. He was not a great composer like Liszt or Chopin or Mendelssohn, but he was a phenomenal pianist and he had incredible ideas. He invented several pianistic formulas which had, as a purpose, ways to make the piano sing. For example, he had the accompaniments on each side of the keyboard with the melody in the middle. He wrote a very fascinating preface - the 12 or 24 transcriptions in ‘The Art of Singing Applied to the Piano’ , which was published by the famous French publisher, Heugel.
Thalberg wrote the preface explaining how to apply the bel canto to the piano-playing. And then, what people don’t know is that when Thalberg died, Georges Bizet, composer of the most popular opera in the world (Carmen), continued this work upon request of the publisher, Heugel. Bizet wrote 150 transcriptions: 50 from German music, 50 from French music, and 50 from Italian music, and he called it ‘Le pianist chanteur’. This was the continuation of what Sigismund Thalberg had started. You know, when I spoke to two piano professors at the conservatory here, in Paris, they didn’t know about this work because it is now out of print.
Why am I mentioning these people ? Because when they used to play the piano, they had a natural rubato. And I personally believe, maybe I am wrong, but I believe that the listeners - some of whom were pianists themselves - of these great pianists were probably trying to imitate them. However, the way that they imitated them was not natural. When Chopin was doing a rubato, it came from inside of himself, it was not calculated. When people tried to imitate his rubato, it was not anything natural and maybe they even went to some excess and exaggerated a ‘bad-taste’ rubato. This probably was the reason it created the other extreme, which is something I hate : the academic playing.
The pianists who emerged in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, some of the big-names of today, are unfortunately, in my taste, part of this academic way of playing the piano. They are not anymore with the freedom of imagination within the respect of what we know as the intentions of the composer. I say ‘what we know’ because, of course, we only can guess through the writings of the people who listened to them, or through the writings of the composers themselves.
But to be honest with you, I have to admit that today, we are living in a new world. When people speak about the end of the world - like the 21st of December, 2012 - I believe it’s more the end of a world, and we are entering a new one. Not only with these electronic things, you know, with the iPads and internet, which make information available so easily and have changed our lives. Of course, it has changed our lives, but only technologically. Spiritually, there is no improvement, unfortunately.
What I am trying to say is that today, there are some new pianists from all parts of the world. It is not anymore only the Europeans or the Americans. As you know, there are some incredibly talented pianists from Asia, coming from China, Korea, Japan, parts of Latin America, from countries that we would never expect them to come from. And today, I believe that there are, indeed, some very interesting personalities.
There is an incredible number of wonderful, young pianists, and some of them are very fascinating personalities. Most of them, I would say, play better than the pianists of the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Of course, somebody like Friedman, or Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Gyorgy Cziffra, are among those very original personalities with great pianistic means. But today, we also have some of these people. Look at the young Chinese girl, Yuja Wang. Look at the English pianist, Stephen Hough. I’ve noticed that when you ask a living pianist, ‘Who are your favorite pianists ?’, they always speak about the ones who are dead. Why shouldn’t we recognize the values of the new ones, the contemporary ones who are still living ? There is Marc-Andre Hamelin. Some people like him, some people don’t like him – but no one can say that he is not a great pianist. I love the playing of Stephen Hough. I think he really has something to say. I have never heard him in concert, but I love two or three of his CDs that I’ve heard. You have this young British pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, and many others !
Why do we not admit these great talents ? There is Koji Attwood – I love Koji. He plays wonderfully ! And there are also his incredible transcriptions ! There is also another New York pianist, less well-known but who makes great transcriptions, Matthew Cameron. There is also, in Chicago, the excellent Russian pianist, Vladimir Leyetchkiss. He made some phenomenal transcriptions and I recently recorded a solo-piano transcription he made of the Second Piano Suite of Rachmaninoff. This is a great achievement, and it is worth the achievements of Liszt or Godowsky or Thalberg. Let’s be fair. There is competition between all of us, but please, let’s stop this ‘jungle’ game ! (laughs).
EH: Great pianists of the past have said that in order to mature as an artist, it is necessary to read and know many things around us.
Katsaris: It depends on the personality of the person. Some people have the ability to grasp, to duplicate, to understand the intentions of the composer. And some other people need to read about the life of the composer, the context of the composition. So it really depends on personality. It’s like saying about a 16-year-old who plays wonderfully the Liszt B minor Sonata. Yes, he plays very well, but people like to say that that they don’t have the maturity. We think in our heads that a person at sixteen is not old enough. Some people, at sixty-five, play the Liszt Sonata terribly. Others at sixteen or seventeen can immediately grasp the meaning of the sonata, even if they cannot express it in words. It depends on the person.
Look at Barenboim. He was very mature when he was very young, you know. Barenboim played the Beethoven and Mozart concertos when he was very young. I am not a fan of Barenboim in the Tchaikovsky, Liszt, or Chopin piano concertos, but when he was young, he was mature, and he played the Mozart and Beethoven concertos, perhaps as well as a pianist who was sixty or seventy years old.
EH: What, in your opinion, is the utmost purpose of Art ?
Katsaris: I personally believe that an artist - whether a painter or a musician, has a huge responsibility in society. Perhaps more so for the musician, because theirs is a performance art. The artist has a determining role to contribute, to make people feel better. When the audience goes to a concert or when they listen to a CD at home, they escape from their daily worries, from unhappiness. If an artist is able to communicate this high level of creation called music or Art, and contributes to make an audience feel better, to make them feel happier, then everybody has been raised on a spiritual level, even if this is a small dosage. It is like a doctor who injects an organism into the body for a relief from pain. The musician relieves people from their daily upsets and worries. And it is very important for the musician to have the ability to communicate, as much as possible, the emotions to the listener.
I would like to quote Mr. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology here. He said, “Art is a word that summarizes the quality of communication,”. Art is absolutely necessary because we live in a society full of madness at various levels. There is a big difference between what we have today and what we had sixty-five years ago. At the time, we were fighting each other with arms, but now, we have nuclear weapons. All it would take is a single madman to push a button, and we’d all be in real trouble. This is a time of sanity and insanity. It is very important to promote the Arts. And when I hear people say ‘there are too many pianists’, I say, ‘No,’. There may be too many for everyone to have a big career, but as much as possible, the growth of Art in society can only be a good thing.
EH: Is there an artist or a specific art-form, outside of music, that has gained your admiration and attention over the years ?
Katsaris: Yes, believe it or not, it’s architecture. I absolutely adore architecture. I am more sensitive to architecture than to painting. Maybe this is because when I am playing the piano, I have incredible visions of colors, of dancing, etc. I love ballet. I absolutely adore it. But I live all the time with colors. For example, the ‘F’ for me is the color green; the ‘C’ is red or white; the ‘E’ is yellow; and the ‘E-flat’ is beige. So when I look at a painting, I admire the painter for having put so much life into something that does not move. But I see so many colors, so many dancing forms and sculptures. For me, music is the most complete art. But I do have a weakness for architecture (laughs).
EH: In your opinion, is the future of classical music secure ?
Katsaris: I will speak very openly. I think classical music will never die. I believe that the high-quality level of any art, of aesthetics, is the closest thing to the real truth. What is this truth ? It is the spiritual matter and not the physical. This physical world - the piano, your body, all of these things, have a beginning and an end. And all of these things move around in the Universe. The Earth moves at a rate of 100,000 kilometers per hour ! Whatever has created the physical universe is greater than it. And if we accept this as ‘spiritual’, something that is not material, then music is very close to spirituality. Something that is true cannot have an end, it cannot die. I believe that classical music will exist as long as mankind exists.
EH: Is there a current trend in the world of pianism that you would like to see changed ?
Katsaris: Not necessarily. The standard repertoire is like the Bible. The lesser known repertoire is the excitement. You cannot be bored with this vocation. It is so fantastic and the range is so wide. I have been told that we play just 2% of what was written in the 19th century. Isn’t that incredible ? It is so fascinating to discover new music.
You know, I made a CD of the three Mozarts. It is probably the only one in history (laughs), but it contains works by Leopold (father), Wolfgang, and Franz-Xaver (Wolfgang’s son). And I recorded one of the Polonaise melancolique by Franz-Xaver and discovered that it sounds like the first series of Polonaises that was written by the young Chopin.
Now there is something incredible in this because Franz-Xaver was considered a third-rate composer. He had the same name as his father – he was baptized Franz-Xaver, but his mother, Constanza, changed his name to Wolfgang Amadeus – which was terrible for him. Nobody would say that he stole anything from Chopin. Chopin was four or five years old when this Polonaise melancolique was composed. Maybe Chopin was aware of this piece ? Nobody can say. But the first piece that Franz-Xaver published was a set of variations to his father’s Don Giovanni. He was only fourteen years old. The second set of variations that he published, in 1805, sounds like Schubert; Schubert was eight years old at the time. So this son of Mozart, who was poorly defined by the critics, wrote Chopin before Chopin, and Schubert before Schubert. This is very intriguing. These discoveries are really very fascinating.
EH: What is the one thing that gives you the most joy as an artist ?
Katsaris: I try to reach perfection. I continuously suffer because I never reach it. I don’t like concerts. When I think about it, it’s not just about the pianistic perfection, it is the whole thing. Technique is not only the mechanism of playing the right notes. Technique is the art of phrasing, of coloring, knowing that there are many different levels of sound. And the most important thing is the communication of the emotions and the structure of the piece. Music expresses everything in life, all of the emotions - whether it be death, apathy, sadness, fear, anger, revolt, boredom, joy, enthusiasm – all these things can be expressed in music. When I play the music of Mahler, I find that no other composer has been able to better express the feeling of distress, of helplessness when you are really at the bottom. This was expressed so well by Mahler. It is just unbelievable.
At the end of his life, you know von Karajan was trying to get a beautiful sound all the time. But why ? If you are playing the Beethoven Appassionata sonata and you have the feeling of revolt, you are not trying to get a beautiful sound. Revolt is revolt! It is nonsense. Music has this unique quality of expressing everything in life. The biggest joy is trying to reach this quality of perfection, even though it is impossible to attain. Absolutes are not reachable, but I always try to improve my playing with respect to each composer. Some critics love my Mozart piano concertos, others have said that they are too reserved. Of course, I will not play Mozart like Liszt. It is a totally different kind of music. For me, Mozart has something very pure, something that you don’t want to destroy. I love Liszt, but I am not a big fan of his Don Giovanni Fantasy. It is too heavy, just too much (laughs).
EH: Mr. Katsaris, it has been an absolute pleasure to speak with you this evening.
Katsaris: Thank you, for me too !