Amsterdam, 6 August 2002
WB (=Willem Boone): You are known, among other things, for your recordings of the complete Beethoven Symphonies transcribed by Liszt. How did you proceed to play a symphony on a piano? Did you try to imitate the colours of wind instruments and strings for example?
CK (=Cyprien Katsaris): This is complicated. I tried to imitate some elements from the orchestral colours, but these are basically new pianistic works. Horowitz called them "the greatest piano works" shortly before his death. Playing these pieces develops your sense of phrasing and also helps you to develop a wide tonal range. This works of course also in "authentic"piano works. Accompanying singers is also helpful for a pianist. You learn to develop your listening abilities. I benefit from similar experiences when I play for instance the first Chopin Ballade; I approach the second theme in a songful way thinking of the phrasing generated by the bow of a string instrument.
WB: Does playing a symphony on a piano makes you feel very different, compared to, say, a Chopin sonata?
CK: Yes, in a certain way, it does.
WB: Have you ever felt the ambition to conduct, especially after having played the piano versions of the Beethoven Symphonies?
CK: Not really, no. If you want to conduct, you have to do it well. The pianists who started a career as a conductor are mostly dilettantes. Barenboim eventually became a great conductor.
WB: Did you play these scores by heart? How do you manage to memorize all these notes?
CK: For the recordings, I used the music. However, I played the Pastorale 20 times in concert and the Eroica 79 times. It's some sort of training. I don't play them any more, because they drove me crazy. For the recording, I compared the original and the transcription and added elements that were left out in the Liszt-version. My fingers were bleeding during the recording of the last movement of the 8th Symphony….
WB: What about the Liszt transcription of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique?
CK: I recently sight-read it, but there is so much, we pianists play only 2% of what has been written!
WB: I read what a producer of a substantial project said the other day: "A composer like Schumann doesn't sell". You play both the core repertoire and unfamiliar pieces, e.g. Beethoven's own transcription of the Prometheus ballet music or Mexican piano music. Do you play unknown music for your own pleasure or because you want your audience to listen to new repertoire? And are you sensible to the argument that certain composers "don't sell"?
CK: No, that's nonsense. I don't care whether music "sells". As musicians, we make money with concerts. What counts for me is that creation exists, regardless how many copies it sells. I live for creation, that's what I am here for. Recordings are somehow like children and others, the recording companies, decide, arbitrarily, if they will survive or not by deleting them or not from the catalogue. And this happens too often! Performing and producing CD's is in a way a love act between the composer and the spiritual essence of an interpreter. It's important to be aware of your spirituality, you are the one who gives the music to the audience.
WB: You launched your own label, Piano 21. Why was that? Because you were dissatisfied with the policy of the main recording companies?
CK: I wanted to have freedom. Yes, it has happened that several substantial projects I embarked on, such as the complete piano works by Chopin for Sony, were cancelled.
WB: Did you also start your own label because you wanted to promote unknown music?
CK: I have always tried to find a balance between the big and the rare repertoire.
WB: I am an amator pianist and the teachers I had never put any emphasis on sound, which nevertheless seems essential for a pianist according to me. Do you do anything special in order to achieve a beautiful sound or is it innate? (You have it or you don't have it).
CK: That's a good question, but it's complicated. It depends on a lot of factors; acoustics, the instrument you play on, the weight of your body… I can only advise to listen to what you do and try to get out of your body.
It's actually a mixture of a highly spiritual and physical experience, sound is only a vehicule which transports. Technique is everything except transcendance, it's about phrasing, colouring, different sound levels and most of all, communication of musical emotion. Transcendance depends on the personality of the artist. Fingers that move are another matter, that's about mechanism.
WB: Is there such thing as a "Katsaris sound" which can be instantly recognized?
CK: I don't know. When I am on a jury of a competition, there are mainly only one or two pianists with a personal sound. Gilels, Horowitz and Cziffra had a sound, but I cannot easily recognize a contemporary pianist when listening to their sound.
WB: What about a young pianist like Dong Hyek Lim who recently won the Marguerite Long competition in Paris?
CK: O yes, he is wonderful!
WB: Do you adjust your sound depending the hall where you play?
CK: Yes, we always do that automatically. In the Concertgebouw, the acoustics help you, but even here, if you move the piano only a little bit, it may affect your playing. Amsterdam has one of the best acoustics, along with Carnegie Hall and the Musikverein in Vienna.
WB: A propos, people from Paris use to complain that they have no hall with proper acoustics, whereas they have at least five halls with different programmes! Is it really that bad?
CK: No, it's ok. Le theatre des Champs Elysées for instance is a great hall, although a bit dry. Chatelet and la Salle Pleyel are also ok. They complain because they want more, preferably a new hall. In fact, there is a real need for the Orchestre de Paris.
WB: What do you think of what your colleague Martha Argerich has said regarding American Steinways, "they are inferior (by far!) to European Steinways"?
CK: That's true, sometimes they are not optimal. We almost always ask for Hamburg Steinways! Pro Piano helped a lot. New Yamaha's as well as the new concert grand of Steingraeber und Söhne are also wonderful.
WB: Speaking of which, why are there so few women who really made a career as a pianist?
CK: Well, there are more and more, don't you think so? I hear them in competitions, but some disappear afterwards.
WB: Of which conductors do you keep special memories?
CK: Eugene Ormandy. I played in one of his last public appearances before a large audience, where I played Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy. This concert was video-taped by the way. Some conductors are difficult as human beings, but great musicians (CK doesn't mention names here!), some other non-famous conductors behave more humanly…
WB: I heard rumours of you playing duets with Marc André Hamelin. What's the likelihood of this collaboration?
CK: Frankly, I am not a fan of 2 piano music, it becomes easily aggressive and often they are not together. I think very highly of Hamelin however, he is one of my three favourites, Hough and Volodos being the other two. Kocsis is also wonderful.
WB: Will there be other artists that perform on your label?
CK: Not for now, no. I am going through a difficult time now, especially when I don't get sponsors.
WB: Are there DVD"s of yours?
CK: Yes, there are a few. One of them is an all Chopin recital I played at Carnegie Hall (commemoration concert in 1999).
© Willem Boone, 2002