June 20, 2014

Beethoven/Katsaris Concerto no. 5, ‘Emperor’ – CD Review

Beethoven/Katsaris Concerto no. 5, ‘Emperor’ – CD Review
Sometimes, in a concerto, the orchestra gets all the good parts – and the role of the soloist is to accompany the orchestra by playing arpeggios and other embellishments while the other instruments belt out the heart-on-your-sleeve melody. One case in point is the second movement of Brahms’ violin concerto where, after woodwinds set the stage, the melody enters, profound, gorgeous and unassumingly innocent, only that it is not by the solo violin, but the first oboe. The long oboe solo is so complete and self-sufficient — what more needs to be said? — that violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate refused to perform the work, remarking, “I don’t deny that it’s fairly good music, but does anyone imagine that I’m going to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the Adagio?”

French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris has transcribed and recorded a solo version of Beethoven’s Concerto no. 5 in E-flat, Emperor, explaining his reasons in the CD sleeve notes for doing so:

… I have always felt a degree of frustration regarding the magnificent introductory tutti in the first movement, which is the exclusive preserve of the orchestra. Naturally I was appalled not to find it in the piano score, and so I determined to appease my (avowedly selfish!) 55-year-old longing by making this transcription…

On the CD is two versions of the Emperor concerto, one version conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and accompanied by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the other, a world premiere recording of the solo piano arrangement. Katsaris is no stranger to transcriptions, especially those of Beethoven’s music, having been the first to record Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s entire Symphony cycle between 1983-89 on Teldec. This disc is produced by Katsaris’ own Piano21 label instead of a bigger or more commercial recording company.

Katsaris’ arrangement fills in the grand orchestral tutti parts with tremolos and octaves, and plays them with such great energy and drive that the outer movements are considerably faster than the orchestral versions. In fact, sacrilegious as it may sound, if listening to the solo piano transcription as background music, one might not even notice the absence of the orchestra!

After a while, though, one gets a sense that Katsaris might be trying too hard to produce an orchestral sound on the piano, with the tremolandos and hammering out the block chords. In the first movement, especially at sections where the piano echoes the orchestra or vice versa in short phrases, the timbre of the orchestra is missed, and the chords repeated on the piano seem inevitably pointless. The adagio is an oasis of calm and beauty, its transparent textures providing respite from the pounding in the outer movements. There were snatches of sensitivity in places, but the need for ‘being’ an orchestra overtakes that at times.

Katsaris is fleet-footed and nimble in the rondo. His transcription tries convincingly to differentiate between the piano and the orchestra part by adding thicker textures and more notes into the orchestral parts, but it results in those passages sounding cluttered and dense. Still, his playing is marked with clarity and vigour, although he is not the most subtle of pianists.

This CD is probably only a must-get for fans of the Liszt piano transcriptions of orchestral music or fans of the Emperor concerto, otherwise, one is not missing out on much.

Rating: 3.5/5

This CD will be available for purchase from 7 July 2014.

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