Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Cyprien Katsaris

interview by Ben Hogwood

Celebrated pianist Cyprien Katsaris is on the phone to Arcana from Paris. We are to talk about the music of Beethoven, which he has celebrated with the release of a fascinating new box set, exploring a number of different corners of the composer’s piano output. Not for him a disc of sonatas – this includes some of Beethoven’s earliest and latest works, plus familiar utterances in unexpected guises, for instance Saint-Saëns’ and Musorgsky in arrangements of movements from the string quartets.

Cyprien is an extremely generous interviewee, and our chat is punctuated by musical examples given on the piano of his Paris apartment. He is also incredibly good-humoured and engaging. We begin the interview by discussing his first experiences of Beethoven’s music, which on the way reveal important aspects of his upbringing.

“We used to live in French Cameroon in the 1950s”, he says, “and I was raised there because my family emigrated from Cyprus. My parents were among the few people who had an LP collection, and I remember very well my first Beethoven listening was the Pastoral symphony and the Ninth, because they had those LPs. This could explain why I went into recording the transcriptions by Liszt of the nine Beethoven symphonies in the 1980s for Teldec, because since I was a kid I loved that music. I was always wondering if it was possible to enjoy this music with my own fingers on the piano, so you can guess the shock when I found out about those transcriptions, which were published by the French publisher Durand.”

He is a natural storyteller who draws some unexpected parallels. “As you might also guess, when you like something and you can’t get it, you want it more. It’s like having a girlfriend who is very beautiful, but when I walk down the street and I see another woman I want her even more because I know that I cannot get her. When I say this to my girlfriend she laughs, you know?! The same thing happened with the Pastoral symphony, and that could be the explanation for my very strong attraction towards transcriptions. I always try in my life to keep a balance in my concert programmes and recordings between normal, standard repertoire and forgotten pieces or transcriptions.”

His contribution to Beethoven’s anniversary is A Chronological Odyssey, a set of six CDs available on his own Piano 21 label. “The idea came to me in April last year, because I was wondering what to do for the 250th anniversary. Doing the 32 sonatas again did not seem like a good idea. There are so many, and I was told there are more than 70 versions. The idea was to do this chronological odyssey, mixing standard repertoire and transcriptions, and I also had a photocopy of the Kreutzer Sonata arranged for piano. I have had that for several years, and received it from a musicologist at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. He told me that the second movement was arranged by Carl Czerny. Nobody knows who did the other two movements, maybe Czerny and maybe someone else, and I was wondering if I should record it. That was the perfect combination, and the Spring Sonata too. They sound so nice on the piano. I only found out then that the Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, and the cello sonatas, are not written for violin and piano, but for piano with violin.”

We turn to Beethoven’s output of sonatas for solo piano. “As you know there are not 32 sonatas but 35”, he tells me, “because you have to include the first three ones that Beethoven wrote, known as the Electoral sonatas. I also wanted to include a rarity, the 2 Preludes in all 12 major keys. There is also the small Ritterballet, a commission from Count Waldstein. On the day of the premiere the Count said to the audience that he was the composer! It’s crazy. There is a piano transcription by Beethoven himself.”

Katsaris does also include some well-known works, such as the Moonlight and Appassionata sonatas. “I made a selection of eight sonatas in addition to the youth sonatas, and I tried to be careful about the combination of personal ideas and the information written by Beethoven himself on the score, considering that the pianos now are different to his years. For example, in the last movement of the Appassionata Sonata, it says Allegro ma non troppo, and almost all the big names who recorded or played it played it too fast! This is not what Beethoven wants. Of course it is a temptation to do that, but it’s not what he wrote!” By way of illustration he sings the theme. “These little details are important, in order to respect the wishes of the composer.”

A good deal of detective work has resulted in the unearthing of some unusual arrangements. “I have spent all those years – I’m 69 now – and I have been in libraries, specialist shops of antique scores, and sometimes you are lucky and sometimes not so lucky. Saint-Saëns, by the way, his anniversary is next year. He died in 1921, on 16 December – the exact anniversary of when Beethoven is supposed to have been born. I had invitations for a Beethoven recital in Bonn in May and September, where I was going to play the Symphony no.9 in a two-piano version with my good friend Etsuko Hirose. She lives in Paris, and won the Martha Argerich competition. We were going to play the Symphony no.9 together, and then I have an invitation on 16 December into the Beethoven Haus with several musicians playing a piece each. I hope the confinement t will allow us to do this. Saint-Saëns arranged for piano three movements from string quartets, and Musorgsky two movements from the last quartet, Op.135. It’s quite fascinating, and also the Wagner transcription of the Symphony no.9. It’s not as good as the Liszt version, but Wagner discovered the music of Beethoven when he was 18 years old, and he claimed that Beethoven and Shakespeare were visiting him in his dreams. He copied the Fifth and Ninth symphonies entirely, and transcribed the Fifth, so I wanted to include that transcription. It also allowed me to cover all the scores in my collection. Some of them I was not even aware of!”

There were more arrangements to come. “I found out about Louis Winkler, who made these great transcriptions of the Spring Sonata and some other pieces, and as I explained in the booklet, he did a lot and transcribed so many things! There was also Franz Kullak who transcribed the last movement of the Violin Concerto. It’s all very fascinating, and the idea was to have a chronological order from the very first transcription when Beethoven was 11 or 12 years old, up to the very last one. I didn’t even know that Beethoven wrote the short canons which he used to call a musical joke, which is very interesting and funny!”

He recounts his thoughts on Beethoven’s first work. “The very first piece is based on a march by Dressler. They didn’t find out where this march comes from, and I remember a German musicologist told me 25 years or so ago in Berlin that we pianists only play 2% of everything which has been published for the piano in the 19th century. Anyway, this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. I decided to change the tempi of the variations to make it a little bit more interesting, but this is not of course the only way to perform this piece. You can stay in the same tempo, like the theme. My argument is that when you consider Beethoven was a great improviser, like Mozart, Chopin, Bach or Liszt, the problem of composing music is that you have just one version put down in writing. For example, Chopin, when he played the same piece again, would change tempi, dynamics, the notes, even – we found several versions.”

The same applies here. “When you look at Beethoven maybe I am maybe the first pianist who recorded the four versions of that famous theme of the last movement of the Eroica Symphony. He wrote it first as a dance, part of a group of dances for orchestra with piano arrangements, and then he used it again as the last number of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Then he uses it again in the last movement of the Eroica Symphony, and his Eroica Variations Op.35. It shows that sometimes they have these different ideas about a theme. We know he was a great improviser, and from the writings of Carl Czerny that he played quite fast and full of fire. I think that allows some freedom, especially in the Variations, and especially those that could become a little bit boring if you don’t add something a little bit more spicy. Of course Beethoven was a kid, and his teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Cyprien also includes the Fantasy, published as Op.77 in Beethoven’s output. “What a difficult piece!” he exclaims. “This is a perfect example of what could have been an improvisation of Beethoven, right? It is a very interesting piece, and not often performed unfortunately. I don’t know if that is because it’s difficult. Is it because when a pianist wants to include the music of Beethoven in a program it’s always sonatas, and sometimes variations, and almost nothing else? I found out that some colleagues don’t even know about the existence of this piece. It’s a pity because it’s a great piece, and it’s interesting to have an overview between the first sonata and the last one.”

He has a special place for the last of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, published as Op.111. “The last sonata is of course this great masterpiece. It’s all written in the booklet to the release, but it is expressing so much of what were the feelings and philosophy of Beethoven. With the Fantasy, you have at the end this strange theme which could be an embryo of the Ninth Symphony and the Ode To Joy theme. The same thing happened with Mozart. We are going to release the complete concertos in a few months, live recordings made in Salzburg, and one theme he used in his Piano Concerto no.8 in C major K246, and this theme he uses again a little bit differently in a later concerto, also in C major, and again in his last C major concerto, no.25. It’s so interesting to find out about all these connections. I remember about 15 years ago I made a CD devoted to the family of Mozart, the father and his son. I recorded one of the three sonatas of Leopold Mozart, which is a strange situation because he was a violinist but has not left any violin pieces! I found in his Piano Sonata in C major that the second movement contains some elements which are obviously used again by Mozart the son when he wrote the divine slow movement of the Piano Concerto no.21. This means that he remembered the slow movement of his father’s sonata.”

Katsaris is on something of a roll. “When I met your former prime minister Tony Blair at a dinner, I went to the piano of my friends and I improvised. First, I played the British national anthem, and then I improvised on the Warsaw Concerto, and Rule Britannia, and I asked him how many times did you meet the Queen in those Tuesday meetings? He could not remember because he did not write it down. But you know that Beethoven wrote variations on God Save The King and Rule Britannia, don’t you? On one of my CDs called Album d’un voyager, I recorded a piece, a set of variations on Rule Britannia composed and published in London something like 200 years ago by a French composer called Latour. He was established in London, and that was in my collection of old scores. Many people were writing fantasies, potpourris and variations on old tunes from Wales, England and Scotland.”

Our time is sadly up – which gives me time for one last question, on how Cyprien has reacted to lockdown conditions. “I am practising continuously”, he says with characteristic enthusiasm, “even without the confinement. I practise every day of the year. Life is too short and I have too many scores to still learn before I pass away! I have decided I will not pass away for several decades more. I practise every day except for the day of the concert. If you have a nice dinner in the evening you will spoil it by having a dinner before, so I always do not play on the day of the concert itself. The confinement here does not concern me at all.”

Beethoven: A Chronological Odyssey is a 6D anthology of the composer played by Cyprien Katsaris, and released by Piano 21. You can listen to the collection on the Spotfy link below, and you can explore purchase options at the Presto website