Cyprien Katsaris in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

I hope you all have a very happy and peaceful Easter. My eleventh interview in the Classical Conversations Series features French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris. This interview was recorded last weekend at the French Institute in South Kensington, London, where Cyprien gave an evening recital as part of the It’s All About Piano Festival.

A graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, Cyprien studied piano with Aline van Barentzen and Monique de la Bruchollerie (piano First Prize, 1969), as well as chamber music with René Leroy and Jean Hubeau (First Prize, 1970), he won the International Young Interpreters Rostrum-UNESCO (Bratislava 1977), the First Prize in the International Cziffra Competition (Versailles 1974) and he was the only western-European prize-winner at the 1972 Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Competition. He was also awarded the Albert Roussel Foundation Prize (Paris 1970) and the Alex de Vries Foundation Prize (Antwerp 1972).

Cyprien’s major international career includes performances with the world’s greatest orchestras, most notably The Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, SWR Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra Washington D.C., Detroit Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Toronto Symphony, The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Residenz Orchestra Den Haag, Brabant Orchestra, The NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo), Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, Korean Chamber Orchestra, Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Tapiola Sinfonietta, Bucharest George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, Milan RAI Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, The Oxford Philomusica, The Auckland Philharmonia and The City of Mexico Philharmonic Orchestra whose inaugural concert’s and subsequent tour he was the featured soloist (1978). He has collaborated with conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Mstslav Rostropovich, Sir Neville Marriner, Sir Simon Rattle, Myung Whun Chung, Christoph von Dohnányi, Charles Dutoit, Antal Dorati, Ivan Fischer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Kent Nagano, James Conlon, Sir Charles Mackerras, Rudolf Barshai, Sandor Végh, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Leif Segerstam, Dmitri Kitajenko, Andrey Boreyko, Christopher Warren-Green, Zdeněk Mácal, Xian Zhang, Paul Mann, Marios Papadopoulos … and Karl Münchinger, who on the festive occasion of his farewell concert in 1986, with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, personally invited Cyprien Katsaris to perform the Haydn D major Concerto.

In addition to his activities as a soloist he founded the “Katsaris Piano Quintet”. This has received a very enthusiastic response from both the press and audiences in the Americas, Europe and Japan.

Cyprien has recorded extensively for Teldec (Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin, Warsaw 1985; Grand Prix du Disque Franz Liszt, Budapest 1984 and 1989; British Music Retailer’s Association’s Award 1986; Record of the Year 1984, Germany, for the 9th Symphony of Beethoven/Liszt), Sony Classical, EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, BMG-RCA, Decca, Pavane, and now on his own label, PIANO 21.

His discography consists of solo works by most of the greatest masters as well as works for piano and orchestra including Bach Concertos with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, Brahm’s Concerto no. 2 with Eliahu Inbal conducting the Philharmonia (London), both Concertos of Mendelssohn with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (of which Mendelssohn had been music Director), and the complete Concertos by Mozart, recorded live and performed in Salzburg and Vienna with Yoon K. Lee and the Salzburger Kammerphilharmonie.

In addition to the standard repertory, Cyprien Katsaris has recorded, as world premières, long lost works such as the Liszt/Tchaikovsky Concerto in the Hungarian style with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Beethoven’s own piano arrangement of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and Gustav Mahler’s original piano version of Das Lied von der Erde with Mezzo Brigitte Fassbaender and Tenor Thomas Moser.

In 1992, the Japanese NHK TV produced with Cyprien Katsaris a thirteen-program series on Frédéric Chopin which included masterclasses and his own performance. On 17 October 1999, the New York concertgoers offered him a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall for his recital dedicated to Frédéric Chopin, performed on the day of his 150th death Anniversary. This concert was recorded (audio and video) and has been issued on the PIANO 21 label. On 27 January 2006, the day of the 250th Anniversary of Mozart’s birth, he was the soloist at the inaugural concert of the Mozart Orchestra Mannheim founded and conducted by Thomas Fey. In March 2006 Cyprien Katsaris was the first pianist ever to give masterclasses in Franz Liszt’s house in Weimar since Liszt, who taught there for the very last time in 1886, the year of his death. In August 2008, he was invited to give two concerts on the occasion of the Beijing Olympic Games at the National Center for the Performing Arts. In addition to the world premier of a concerto for ten pianos and orchestra – China Jubilee – by the composer Cui Shiguang, he improvised on an ancient Greek melody, and on, inter alia, Chinese melodies, in tribute to the universality of the Olympic Games.

Two famous film directors, Claude Chabrol and Oscar-winner François Reichenbach, have made films of Cyprien in live concert performances.

Cyprien Katsaris is mentioned in the following works: The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present; The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians; Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Music (MGG); Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians; Harenberg Klaviermusikführer: 600 Werke von Barock bis zur Gegenwart; David Dubal, The Art of the Piano: Its Performers, Literature and Recordings.

Cyprien has been a member of the jury of the following International Competitions: Chopin (Warsaw 1990), Liszt (Utrecht 1996), Vendôme Prize (Paris 2000), Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud – Ville de Paris (2001), Beethoven (Bonn 2005), Giorgos Thymis (Thessaloniki 2011) and Scriabin (Moscow 2012).

He has also conducted masterclasses at the Mannes College of Music, in New York City, the University of Toronto, the Salzburg Mozarteum, the Arts Academy in Mexico, The Academy of Performing Arts in Hong-Kong, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. In addition he was appointed Artistic Director of the Echternach International Festival (Luxembourg) from 1977 to 2007.

Cyprien’s work has been honoured and recognized by the following awards: “Artist of UNESCO for Peace” (1997), “Commandeur de l’Ordre de Mérite du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg” (2009) and “Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters” (France 2000). He also received the “Médaille Vermeil de la Ville de Paris” (2001) and the “Nemitsas Prize” (Cyprus, 2011). He is a member of ADAP, the Association of Artists for Peace.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read the interview:

M:   French-Cypriot concert pianist Cyprien Katsaris has had a highly successful career playing with all the main orchestras and conductors around the world. He won the International Cziffra Competition and was a prize winner of the 1972 Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium. And I’m so excited that he is joining me for a classical conversation here today at French Institute in South Kensington in London after a concert he’s been playing for the It’s All About Piano Festival.  Welcome, Cyprien.

C:    Thank you very much Melanie.

M:   Congratulations on such a beautiful concert this evening.

C:    Thank you very much. Thank you.

M:   I’d like to start by asking you a little bit about your musical education. How old were you when you started and what was the, kind of, catalyst? And, uh, do you come from a musical family?

C:     Music lovers. My family emigrated from Cyprus in the late 40s to French Cameroon, it was a French colony.

M:   Yes, that’s right.

C:    And they were among the few people who used to listen to classical music and piece. And I remember very clearly the Pastoral Symphony, some Wagner, The Slavonic March of Tchaikovsky, the Emperor Concerto by Horowitz, Sinfonia Concertante of Mozart. And my mother who is not used to who lies claims that when I was five or six months ago – as a baby – I was trying to sing La Raspa. This Mexican song, you know, [sings] So I don’t know how it sounded, you know, maybe [sings] and she wanted — when she was pregnant, she wanted to have a son who will become a conductor. However, when I was four years old, I suddenly decided that I wanted to become a traffic regulation policeman. She was very upset.

M:   I should think so… [laughs]

C:   And her best girlfriend, Cristina, told her “Don’t worry, the conductor and the traffic regulation policeman are doing the same movementss, you know? So it’s the same thing.” Anyway, when I was three and a half, I started playing the piano. I remember very clearly that my parents bought a upright piano for my sister. And I remember clearly when the Cameroonist  people brought it in the living room, in the house. And I felt attracted by the instrument, like a magnet. And I tried to play with one finger. So then they put me with my first piano teacher who is a very beautiful French lady. I was very small and she was tall for me. Blonde and good-looking. And I remember the very first lesson when I was four years old. She asked me to put my fingers, my hands, on some paper and to draw with curves, like this… in order to be aware of my finger. Right? On the paper. And I remember very clearly this incident. Then, we moved to Paris in 1959. I was born in 1951.  So we moved to Paris and then I had some local piano teachers until I moved in the Conservatoire of Paris in ’65, in the class of  Aline van Barentzen.  Aline van Barentzen who is now forgotten, although I am very happy I found out recently that some people have posted some of her recordings on Youtube. She was a great pianist. She was, uh – I think she was Dutch-American in origin. And it seems that still, until today, she broke the record of having been the youngest pianist ever who graduated with the first prize in the conservatoire only when she was eleven years old.

M:   Gosh.

C:   And I remember her telling me that when she passed the exam, her mother threatened her to murder. She said that “I was so afraid that my mother murders me — kills me — if I don’t  get the first prize. Then I tried my best and I got it.”

M:  [laughs] So did you think that she was the most influential teacher on your development as a pianist?

C:    Well, all of them have some influence, you know. She had an incredible assistant who was a pupil of Ithlanta. And then when she resigned, my next professor was Monique de la Bruchollerie. Monique de la Bruchollerie was a great pianist also. Great style. The first time I played for her, I played Tchaikovsky No. 1 Concerto.

M:  Um-hmm.

C:   And she said, “Okay, next week, you have to bring the Fantasy Chromatic and Fugue of Bach,  Sonata Op 110 of Beethoven No. 31, and the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody. In one week.

M:   So you had to work…

C:   Yes.

M:  Very hard.  [laughs]

C:    Right. She was an incredible professor. We had to practice every day about 40 minutes, non-stop scales of keys. From slow to fast, and when you it gets tired you don’t stop, you just slow down. And about half an hour of octaves. Same, non-stop.

M:  That’s interesting, yeah.

C:    And I practiced with her Rach 3, Rachmaninoff 3 Piano Concerto. She was telling me about her concerts. When she used to play this piece –the way I say it ‘she used to play this piece’ is because in ’64 or in ’63, I think ‘64, she had this horrible accident. Car accident between Romania and Ugoslavia.  She lost one eye, she could not walk normally, she could not use her hands anymore. At the peak of her career, and then she became a professor at the conservatoire. And then she died in December 15, 1972 because of a cancer. But, the incredible thing is that she was telling me about Rach 3, for example, that she played so many times. And guess what, about four or five years ago, her daughter finally got a copy of a concert she played in the US at Carnegie Hall, New York in ’51, the year of my birth.  With Rachmaninoff No. 3. I think it was Ernest Ansermet conducting. It was with Boston Symphony. I could not believe what I heard. She was not lying. Tell me the name of one single female pianist who used to play Rachmaninoff No. 3 Piano Concerto in ’51.

M:  Nobody [laughs]

C:   And even male pianists, only Horowitz, Gilels –Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn at the Tchaikovsky competition in ’58. And then female pianists started playing Rachmaninoff No. 3 later in the 60s-70s. And when you listen to this performance, you have the  impression of hearing some kind of female Horowitz. Try to get her published recording which has the Toccata of Saint-Saëns. Which is a solo version of the last No. 5 Piano Concerto. It’s unbelievable and it’s beyond belief. But you can find some records of her…. So she was very influential, she used to say “you have to be very well prepared. And when you’re onstage, forget the hard preparation, length of heart, give to the audience everything. Don’t think of mistakes or memory problems.” And she wanted all of us to copy her fingerings, without being forced to do so.

M:   That’s interesting… yes.

C:    She had some – quite an amazing fingerings. Very interesting. Of course each hand is different. You know, when I give some masterclasses like a few days ago in Japan, the first thing which I tell students is search for the right fingering.

M:  It’s so important

C:  It’s so important

M:  It makes such difference, yeah…

C:   Right. Because all of us, all pianists, we are impatient. We want to play a piece. And I keep telling them you cannot build the third floor of a building without starting at the basement. So search for the right fingering, never go against the natural lean of your hand.

M:  Yes.

C:   Because we always – we are not beginning when we learn the piano. We don’t have to not move the hand. But when you’re going to more difficult things, if your hand needs to move like this or like that or like that or whatever, let it go, you know?

M:  Yes.

C:  I mean, never violate the natural needs for movements of your hands.

M:  Yeah. Yeah.

C:   So… But you know, I think that the real pianist finds things by herself or by himself.

M:   Ah, they do, yeah.

C:   I don’t believe so much in – excuse me for saying – in piano teaching because I found out that there is a lot of crookery:  people get their money, they give their lesson and they don’t know how to help their students. So when I have a master class I always ask for two pianos and if there is a technical problem, I tell the student “I promise to you that we will handle it right now.  And I will show you how to practice it, it might take a few minutes, a few seconds, might take half an hour, but we will handle it ”. And if we have only one hour, I would rather use the necessary time to handle one thing, and then the second thing, and show the student how to practice because the quality of practicing, as you know, is much more important than the quantity of practice.

M:  Yes

C:  Right? You said that yourself.

M: Yes, definitely.

C:   So it’s very important to help them practice step by step.

M:   Yeah, true. How do you think your competition and price winnings have shaped and changed your career? Do you think — How important do you think they were?

C:  Very good question, Melanie. Who likes competitions? I hate them.

M:  [laughs]

C:  I mean, why music should go into this category of sport?

M:  Yes.

C:   And you know, there are so many first prizes who disappeared, and not first prizes who made it.

M:  Yeah.

C:   So as far as I am concerned, yes indeed, the Cziffra competition in Versailles ‘74 got me my first record with EMI France, which was Schubert. He wanted me to record Alkan.  I am not very fond of Alkan except a few pieces. And I told him, “Why don’t you record Alkan”

M:  [laughs]

C:    Cziffra what a great man, by the way. And I want to do Schubert so I did the Three Klavierstücke and several dances. And the second recording for EMI France was The Complete Dances of Scriabin. So the competition, the first prize had helped that.

M:  Yes

C:    Not really for concerts, I don’t believe that competition would lead to concerts except some competitions which already have contacts with presenters. I think Cleveland, when you win competition in Cleveland  you get 50 concerts in the US, which is great,

M: That’s good, yeah…

C:  Like my friend Alexander Guindin, who won it and got something like 54 concerts, within one or two years in the US. The Queen Elisabth  competitionin Belgium, I was the only Western prize winner. By the way we are going to release, in a few months, my finals for that competition which was Rachmaninoff No. 3. It was the first time I ever played it. You can imagine the stress.

M:  First time, in a competition. My goodness. That’s brave!

C:  In the Palais de Bruxelles of Brussels, sold out, live on radio, live on TV. Thank you, horrible. And a jury with Emil Gilels, Leon Fleisher, Alexander Pradeovsky. Annie Fischer, and so on, and so on. Terrible.

M: [laughs]

C:  And you have to play a concerto written by a Belgian composer especially for the competition which you have to learn within one week.  Did you know that?

M: Yes. I did actually, yes.

C:  My goodness. So anyway, this Belgian competition — yes, I got my very first LP, made in Belgium. I got it from concerts in Belgium but that was all.

M:  Right.

C:  It’s a great competition but once again, competitions are not a guarantee for a career.

M:  Well that’s my next question: do you think that you could still establish as pianist (C: No) today because there are so many of them.

C:  Yes

M:   –is it even worth –

C:   I don’t think so. The only good thing with competitions, Melanie, is the pianists get used to playing in the worst conditions.

M:  Um-hmm. Yes.

C:   Playing in front of one person is difficult. Playing in front of two thousand people is difficult. Playing in front of an audience, plus a jury – which is not always nice. I have been in juries. I hate myself when I am a jury. I try to avoid it. I was in the jury of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, in ‘90. It was in ’85 when I was contracted by Teldec. One of my CDs with the Four Ballades and Four Scherzi of Chopin won the Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin, Warsaw 1985 which they established this prize for the first time, this Chopin society. And received records from all over the world. Chopin records. And the jury which was headed by Krzysztof Penderecki, the composer, did not know who was playing. They listened to those recordings anonymously. Then they gave a prize for the solo section, shimmer music section, and with orchestra. So I got the prize for the solo section with the Four Ballades and Four Scherzi. And that’s why they invited me to be in the jury in ’90. But I didn’t want to go then so they asked me again in ’95 and 2000. I cannot stay there for ten days just sitting there all day.

And you know, we are not supposed to exchange opinions between the members of the jury.  However, some reactions, sometimes in international competitions, juries to me are very strange. I am a totally independent person. I am not a piano professor. And sometimes I have the feeling that some jury members in some competitions are trying to favor the pupils of a friend who is also a piano professor. So, you know.

M:  It’s inevitable,  isn’t it? That kind of thing. Yeah. [laughs]

C:   Anyway. Anyway.

M: So moving on, which composers do you really love to play?

C:  Oh, that’s my problem. I love them all. I love them all. I mean, how can you choose between the beautiful dark-haired lady and a blonde lady. How can you choose between Chopin and Bach. Between Prokofiev and Ravel. It’s impossible. It’s impossible.

M:  Hmm.

C:   It’s impossible, you know. I love them all but I do not like anymore contemporary music. I did play some Boulez, Webern, Anton Webern, the variations, and some other stuff. But there is so much rubbish –  excuse me – I mean let’s face it. I mean, Come on.

M:  [laughs]

C:  You have three basic course in music.  Melody, harmony, rhythm. If you violate one, it’s okay. If you violate two it becomes serious. And if you violate all three of them, then… I mean, no.. there is too much rubbish on the name of doing something new.

M:  Um-hmm.

C:  Well, music is on four or five centuries, you know, the kind of music we enjoy, we play. This development was during that period of history. Why always on the name of doing something new, we have to go too far?

M: Yes. We are always pushing the boundaries.

C:  However, after which, that the few times I played the so-called contemporary music, I look at it differently. I enjoy it, when I play it.  But I can understand very easily that when you listen to it, you don’t enjoy it.

M:  Yeah.

C:  And I remember when I played Boulez’ The Spirit of the Second Sonata in the Paris Conservatoire. when was that, ’70 maybe? Or ’69? Umm, I enjoyed it because I could see colors, all kind of dancing, shaking, shaped forms, sculpture, architecture – I see all the art when I play music. and each key has a color. The C is red or white. The D is blue. The F, for example, is green. [plays the piano] So when I play I try to put emotion and you need more emotion in that kind of music to make it more accessible to the audience.  The greatest compliment I ever got from a performance, Melanie, was when I played this Boulez piece in the conservatoire, a lady from the audience came and said “I never expected that I would like that kind of music.  Tonight is the first night that I felt something nice about this music of Boulez. And I had a headache before the performance and my headache went away.” That was her way of compliment. What does that mean? The sound is just a physical vehicle which transports your emotion. You cannot lie in music. You cannot lie in music. Even if you’re sincere – whether you are right or wrong, that is not a discussion. You play a piece, tell different people who have different opinions, they will criticize you, they will say bad things, good things, I don’t care what people say. The important thing is to be sincere.  And in the same way, when I’m in a jury, if a young pianist plays in a different way, but with conviction and I am convinced, then I vote for him or her. Even if it’s a different way of playing the ­music. So if you’re sincere in your emotions and you feel them very strongly and deeply inside, then you will communicate it to the audience. The communication factor in art, during speech and in music, is much more important than the technical aspect.

M:  Yes

C:  Very important. So, you know, by the way, the great American philosopher L. Ron Hubbard, said that art is a word which summarizes the quality of communication. It’s the highest level of communication. So if I play some mistakes or if I have some memory problems, or if I break a stroke as it happens, it’s so funny, in Berlin October 1st –

M:  I’ve heard about this [laughs]

C:   Sold-out house, the concert was organized by the Cyprus Embassy. Because the Cyprus had the Presidential European Union and it was on the day of the founding of the Republic of Cyprus, October 1st. Five minutes before the end of the concert, I was playing my solo transcriptional of Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 and suddenly everything disappeared. You know, it’s very strange.

M: It is.

C:  I’m never sick. Then, they took me to the hospital. And in the ambulance, the doctor injected an injection right before I was in the ambulance. But you know, I was very serene because I believe in the powerful mind. I was extremely serene and I took some – I adapted some – very special attitude: without worry, without fear, and everybody was panicked around me.. you know, they came onstage, the ambassador… all of these people, very nice people. And then this lady from the ambulance injected a product, in the organism, and in the ambulance I was looking at her and said “You are so beautiful, where are you from?”

M:   [laughs]

C:  The second time, “Where are you from, you are very pretty”. She says,
“I am half Russian, half Sudanese”. Strange combination.

M:  Yes, it is. [laughs]

C:  Anyway, the next morning, they took me to the largest hospital in Germany, in Berlin. Fantastic hospital, wonderful care. All night, no feeling on the left side. So, at about 6am/7am, I started moving my fingers. The doctors could not believe it. Because I was supposed either to die, either to remain paralyzed for life, or maybe recover later on. Then, I asked her to find a piano. They finally found a piano after 2-3 days. Because the lecture room for the piano was busy. And I went there and I started playing immediately with my left hand. Some difficult things. And there were 6-7 doctors sitting on my left side. They were looking at each other wondering how is that possible. They asked me to film, to shoot, you know, with the iphone, so they could show it to other doctors. Why I mentioned this: because there are bad things here in life. Never allow yourself or anybody  else to put you down and to contribute to make you feel worse and worse and worse. That is very important.

M:   Definitely, Yeah, it is important. Yes, it is. I also want to ask you about your record label, Piano 21.  What was the inspiration behind this?

C:   Well, I have recorded for some of the major labels. Like Teldec, EMI of course, Sony classical music, one of two things for Deutche Grammophon. You know in 78, by the way, we played at the Royal Festival Hall at the English Bach festival. Les Noces of Igor Stravinsky, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Cyprien, and Homero Francesch. The four pianists.

M:  Fantastic. Wow.

C:   Conducted by Leonard Bernstein. And there is a Deutsche Grammophon CD. And there was a BBC TV production. And something funny, about 1 year later maybe, I played for the first time the Emperor Concerto in Oxford. With the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by a young conductor, called Simon Rattle. And guess what, it was his first ever performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Then he got the post.

M:  Um-hmm.

C:  Yes. So, with record companies, I always have a good relationship but sometimes, freedom of choice is a little bit difficult, which one has to understand because they have several pianists, you know… And so I decided to found my own label in order to be totally free of my decisions. And I called it Piano 21 because I founded it in January 2001 – at the very beginning of the 21st century. And we tried to keep it balanced between a famous repertoire, for example we have a series of all Mozart piano concertos recorded in Salzburg, with the Salzburg KammerPhilharmonie Orchestra conducted by the young Korean conductor Yoon. K. Lee who is a professor at the Mozarteum. We also have some Chopin, some Schumann, concerto live in Tokyo, with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra.

M:  A lot of live performance?

C:   Yes.

M:  That’s great.

C:   Live performance, quite a lot of live. Because I’m trying to issue some archives, sometimes the sound might not be so good. If it is a private recording somewhere 40 years ago. But if the performance is worth, we do a issue. And I try to keep it balanced with rare repertoire.

M:  You do quite a bit of this, don’t you? You enjoy playing rare repertoire.

C:  Oh yes. For example we have a CD with the best of Sergei Bortkiewicz. Sergei Bortkiewicz was a great Russian composer who emigrated during the Bolshevik revolution. He died, I think, in Vienna at 1952. His music is typical Russian. You might have similarity with Sergei Rachmaninov. You know, Mozart and Haydn, also have similarities.  And I was shocked when I heard several years ago this first piano concert, this wonderful recording made by Hyperion – Hyperion is my favorite label.  They have great ideas. This complete list, recording Leslie Howard, and all those wonderful records by Stephen Hough, and Marc-Andre Hamelin. And all those leader series and all these policies that they have. Thanks to them that I found out about Bortkiewicz because in the Romantic Piano Series Concertos, they recorded the No. 1 Concerto of Bortkiewicz,. which was a rare shot for me, “Revelation” and then I decided to do a solo recording of Bortkiewicz. And we have some other rarities also like this piece I played like Theodore Latour –

M:   -Yes –

C:  This French pianist who used to live in London. And who was the – who was appointed the official pianist of Prince Regent – George – , who also became King George IV. I have some of his British rarities. Piano scores. And I recorded it on the album, on the CD called Album de Voyager, which by the way, is named after a title by Franz Liszt. It was the first title of the early version of Années de pèlerinage. And in this CD, you also have some music from Iceland, and some unexpected countries.

M:  [laughs] Yes…

C: And tomorrow I am flying to Germany to make a new CD of rare Soviet  music.

M:   Gosh… So, which composers are you –

C:   Well, there are no known names, but we also found an incredible piece by Khachaturian. It’s a piano solo transcription of an orchestral work called Song for Stalin. Song for Stalin. Imagine. It’s a beautiful piece.

M:  What does playing the piano mean to you?

C:   I always say that music is my life and the piano is my mistress, is my girlfriends. I think the relationship between piano and pianist is highly spiritual and physical at the same time relationship. You fight sometimes, you make love with the piano, it’s everything from life, can be expressed through music. Not just beauty. And that’s why maybe I disagree a little bit with the end of his life. You know Karajan was always trying to get a beautiful sound. Of course music is aesthetics. Of course you have to, but you know life is not always beautiful. If you are distressed, then you have to express this distress. If Beethoven writes an accent of revolt, you are not trying to play a beautiful sound you know, you do [strongly plays some keys in the piano] – you know, you are not trying to do [softly plays some keys in the piano], you know, because it’s a revolt sound. It’s an anger. Revolt, anger, all of the emotions of the human –um, I would say – scale of emotions have to be expressed through music. And we have  a responsibility: you as a pianist, me as a pianist, all of us, we have the responsibility to society, the same way like the medical doctor is going to relieve your organism by injecting a product on your organism. During one or two hours of a concert, or when you listen to a recording, if we contribute to help them to feel better, forget their daily upsets, worries during those few minutes, and if all together we succeed to go at higher spiritual levels, then we have succeeded something in this crazy society.

M:  Thank you so much for joining me today, Cyprien.

C:   Thank you my dear.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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