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This grab bag of Beethoven, near-Beethoven and quasi-Beethoven keyboard pieces is an intriguing listen for piano lovers who maintain personal distinctions between kitsch and real art. The French-Cypriot virtuoso Cyprien Katsaris, born in Marseilles in 1951, has made a name by dazzling his way through transcriptions of symphonic and choral creations.

Here he offers a mix of ‘name’ sonatas (the Appassionata, Moonlight and Tempest among them) juxtaposed with dilutions of the composer’s work by mediocrities who happened to be his contemporaries.

Perhaps because they share some repertoire, Katsaris is sometimes inappositely compared with the Hungarian virtuoso György Cziffra, with whom he briefly studied. Yet Katsaris is usually a far more ingratiating artist than the fire-breathing Cziffra.

Katsaris’ more sustained studies at the Paris Conservatoire were with Aline van Barentzen and Monique de la Bruchollerie, putting him directly in the tradition, across some generations, of the 19th-century eminences Charles-Valentin Alkan and Franz Liszt.

The high point of this set is Richard Wagner’s transcription of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, of primarily lyrical inspiration, played plainly and sympathetically. Because Wagner’s writing is less pianistically sophisticated than Liszt’s, for example, it conveys emotion all the more directly.

The singing line here recalls other achievements by Katsaris, such as his rendition of the fourth movement Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as transcribed by the German mathematical physicist Karol Andrzej Penson (Sony) or his complete recording of Beethoven’s piano arrangement of the ballet Creatures of Prometheus as a plausible composition in its own right (Piano 21).

Given these accomplishments on record, it is puzzling why some of the bland or flat choices Katsaris espouses here lack the molten inspiration that Glenn Gould lavished upon his recordings of the Beethoven/Liszt symphony transcriptions (Sony).

Instead, at times Katsaris produces a dutifulness akin to doggedness, like a raconteur determined to press on to the end of a not very compelling tale. Booklet notes by Katsaris in intermittently unidiomatic English oppose the tradition of not including among Beethoven’s mature output the Three Piano Sonatas WOO 47 or Kurfürstensonaten that he wrote at ages 11 and 12. Katsaris even exclaims: ‘This discrimination against those three youthful Sonatas is simply unfair!’

Despite this protest, surely Katsaris must know that few composers would accept compositions from their prepubescent years being counted in their catalogue of mature achievements. In any case, in 2007, Barry Cooper did include the Kurfürstensonaten in his critical edition of the sonatas for ABRSM, bringing Beethoven’s number of piano sonatas from 32 to 35.

Although these efforts reflect the rococo spirit of the era when they were composed, Katsaris adds a certain lumbering quality, as if endeavouring to increase Beethovenian weight rather more than these particular sonatas can bear.

When we reach the celebrated Sonata No 14 in C-sharp minor (Moonlight), we hear a rather brisk tempo for the opening movement, oddly slowing in forward momentum as the movement progresses. Overall, it is a numb reading, as if under the influence of a local anaesthetic.

Katsaris’ Appassionata has Parisian urbanity, but showily contrasts extremely light-fingered effects and sonorous, sometimes clangorous displays of power. Deft and fluent as these performances are, they are largely surface statements.

Least gratifying of all is the Sonata No 32 in C minor Op 111, where an emotionally superficial interpretation cuts into the appreciation of one of Beethoven’s profoundest affirmations. Digital skills aside, Katsaris replaces cosmic visions with what sounds like, at times, the accompaniment for a silent film serial.

In transcriptions, the outcome is more rewarding, although the inherent value of the pieces in question is almost always inferior. Carl Czerny and anonymous collaborators produced a solo keyboard version of the Kreutzer Sonata, which is pleasant enough. Need it be said that the violin is much missed?

Katsaris’ unctuous suavity is scarcely a match for the nervous tension caused by the effect of a bow being drawn across violin strings. To use a French term applied to the arts, especially painting, this decorative Kreutzer Sonata is pompier – trite or insipid – in spirit.

Not much happier is a transcription by the pianist Franz Kullak, who had no discernible giftfor composition, of the third movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. The result trivialises the orchestral and violin parts by replacing them with dainty high keyboard tones. And a plodding, cloddish version of Beethoven’s String Quartet No 16 by Modest Musorgsky, no less, is equally disappointing.

So, like an episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow where piles of dusty bric-à-brac are suddenly overshadowed by a fortuitous bit of uncanny splendour (the Beethoven- Wagner Ninth Symphony) this set is worth experiencing, despite its unevenness.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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