Katsaris shows fire and insight in varied program

By Lawrence Budmen

Pianist Cyprien Katsaris performed his own solo transcription of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto Wednesday at Gusman Concert Hall for Friends of Chamber Music.

Cyprien Katsaris’s visits to the Friends of Chamber Music are highly prized by lovers of keyboard music. The French-Cypriot pianist-composer is a larger-than-life artistic personality who brings bold interpretive instincts to a a highly varied repertoire.

The piece de resistance Wednesday night at Gusman Concert Hall was the North American premiere of Katsaris’s solo transcription of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, but the subtler side of Katsaris’ art was displayed on the first half of the program.

Twelve of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces were played with a winning combination of fire, sensitivity and insightful musicianship. The evocative “Solitary Traveler” displayed Katsaris’s light touch but he volleyed rapid fistfuls of notes in the “Scherzo,” where the central episode was a moment of quiet, delicate lyricism. The “Waltz,” Op. 38, No. 7, danced in intoxicating, syncopated rhythms while the sadness of “Homesickness” was projected in pearly tones. Katsaris brought a singing vocal line to “Erotikon,” and “Notturno” was rhapsodic in the grandly romantic manner.

A surprisingly fast “To the Spring” displayed Katsaris’ beautifully terraced dynamic palette, the pianissimos finely etched. The hand crossings of “Little Bird” were tossed off with flair and two of the “Popular Melodies” brought out Katsaris’ Chopinesque side. A brightly incisive “Norwegian Dance” set up the rapid-fire “March of the Dwarfs,” Katsaris injecting a sense of modernity and percussive energy into these familiar pieces. The pianist’s performances transcended the scale of Grieg’s short works, displaying depth, nuance and emotional undercurrents beneath the lovely melodies on the surface.

Three Liszt transcriptions of songs by Schubert were striking for Katsaris’ big-boned approach. A gleaming palette of tonal colors suffused Stanchen (Serenade) while the modulations of major and minor key were emphatically projected in an eloquent Der Muller und der Bach. The rarely played transcription of Ave Maria was surprisingly complex, the familiar melody transformed to the stature of an etude. Katsaris brought intense passion and wonderful pianistic command to Liszt’s fascinating vignettes.

Katsaris’s solo version of the Emperor Concerto might be called Liszt and Paganini meet Beethoven. In many ways it is an entirely new piece based on the Beethoven original, so pianistic is Katsaris’ transcription.

He succeeds in adapting Beethoven’s orchestral writing to the keyboard to a much greater extent than Liszt in his solo transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies. (Katsaris has recorded all nine of those Liszt-Beethoven hybrids.) The orchestral line is projected in a second voice, greater in heft and sonority. Katsaris attacked the first movement at fierce sped; yet the light, delicately syncopated reading of the secondary subject formed needed contrast to the high-powered bravura.

His version of the Adagio is highly romanticized, the tempo more deliberate. In the finale, Katsaris unfurls a panoply of Lisztian figurations and pyrotechnics. Katsaris’ prodigious technical arsenal was brilliantly displayed and while his sometimes over-the-top dynamism probably could not pass muster in a performance of the original Beethoven concerto with orchestra, this Beethoven-Katsaris hybrid was an interesting pianistic blockbuster.

As an encore, Katsaris calmed the musical waters with a glowing account of Bach’s transcription of the Adagio from Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto, the austere melody voiced with introspective pathos.

The Friends of Chamber Music season continues with a recital by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor 8 p.m. February 19  at Gusman Concert Hall featuring Bach transcriptions and works by Beethoven, Scriabin, Chopin and Strauss. UM music professor Frank Cooper gives a preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. 305-372-2975; miamichambermusic.org.

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Thu Feb 7, 2013
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