“I'm at the piano every day of the year, without weekends or holidays, because it annoys me. If I don't play, I go mad.” Now there's a statement that is neither exaggeration nor arrogance, merely an averral of faith. And maybe the defining characteristic of Cyprien Katsaris is a permanent anger, laced with a touch of malice, that pushes him to explore rare repertoire as well as diving into astounding transcriptions. We're a long way from the antiseptic compartments of so-called accepted repertoire: it's the triumph of curiosity, of openmindedness and eclecticism over the bastions of orthodoxy.

Cyprien Katsaris © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Cyprien Katsaris
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

JH: In your view, what are the biggest attractions of transcriptions?

CK: They constitute a musical extension of the irresistible attraction that I feel against whatever I don't possess. The moment I meet a woman who attracts me, all it takes is to realise that she isn't available for me to desire her even more! More precisely, this passion started in childhood. My parents had a fine collection of LPs, a lot of orchestral and relatively little piano, most notably Horowitz playing the Emperor. Early on, I wanted to play this orchestral music that I revered. But to do so, I didn't really want to bother with the involvement of other musicians. It was essential that I produced this music directly and in person: in a word, I didn't want to be a conductor.

Contrary to received wisdom, transcriptions are not always a lessening of the music. When an idea has true genius, it can be seen through a prism or lit differently: after all, La Fontaine transcribed Aesop's Fables into beautiful French! In this way, a transcription is something like a black and white photograph of orchestral colours.

But that hasn't always been an easy proposition to defend. In the 70s and 80s, playing transcriptions was frowned upon. 40 years ago, Claude Chabrol came to Luxembourg to film one of my recitals at the Echternach Festival. I was playing several works, including Liszt's transcription of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A minor for organ. Today, that prelude and fugue have disappeared. Why? Because at the time, some so-called well-intentioned friends convinced me that it was bad form to play transcriptions, and that it shouldn't appear on the film. Which is even more of a mistake given that in the years that have passed, transcriptions have come back into fashion.

What's the process of creating a transcription?

That's a complex and difficult question. Given that the objective is to create the illusion of an orchestra, or perhaps of a voice, it's often the case that a literal transcription of the original score is totally useless.

To find the pianistic means most faithful to the original spirit of the work, you have to look through and try out a lot of methods. It's an exercise that has to be done at the piano: you can't do it on paper. It's also important to consider the acoustic of the hall in which the work is going to be played. In general, if you're playing transcriptions, it's better to have a fairly generous reverberation in order to give the illusion of continuity of the sound.

We owe a lot to Thalberg, Liszt's great rival, who wasn't a great composer but was a genius of a transcriber. He developed piano methods which gave the illusion of a “third hand” being added to the pianists two actual hands. And Thalberg was kind enough to write a tract entitled “l'art du chant appliqué au piano” (the art of song applied to the piano), which contains 25 transcriptions where he explains in a few pages how to make the piano sing in bel canto style.

What drives you to take up so much rare repertoire?

A Berlin-based musicologist once explained to me that today's pianists only play about 2% of everything that was published for the piano in the 19th century, an era where there were a lot of transcriptions for four hands as well as for two pianos.

Hands © Julien Hanck
© Julien Hanck

Of course, it's not just the transcriptions which deserve to be played: there are also a lot of original works which have been quite unjustly thrown into a deep dungeon with the key thrown away. For example, I'm convinced that if Mozart's son, Franz Xaver, hadn't been saddled with his father's name, he would have become far more famous. He suffered a great deal from that: just imagine that for his first recital in Vienna, his mother Constanza changed his name to “Wolfgang Amadeus Jr”. But some of the scores of the period that were printed in Vienna still referred to “Wolfgang Amadeus Jr”. And yet, he's one of the creators of the “Polonaise mélancolique” style, a long time before Chopin, just as he composed in the style of Schubert (listen to the penultimate version of his Variations on a minuet from Don Giovanni) at a time when Schubert was just 8 years old! Is it fair that he's consigned to the dustbin of history, merely because he bore the name “Mozart”? That's why, in 2004, I attempted to remedy this by dedicating a record to the three Mozarts: the famous one, his father Leopold and his son Franz Xaver.

So is that why you created your own label, Piano 21, to defend this rare repertoire?

Let's be honest: I set up Piano 21 at the exact time that the CD market was falling through the floor. It certainly wasn't in the expectation of making a fortune, in fact, I'd say that these days, the CD is more of a business card than a commercial product. I consider the CDs I create on my little label are a gift to humanity. All my concert fees have been sunk into it. But I don't care: if I fall under a bus tomorrow, I can at least be sure to have left a considerable legacy to the world: a sonic inheritance that will allow people to rediscover a whole heritage of unfairly neglected works.

Cyprien Katsaris at his home © Julien Hanck
Cyprien Katsaris at his home
© Julien Hanck

You're a scientologist. What has scientology brought to your musical life?

It's brought a considerable heightening of my ability to communicate emotion in music. The concept of “communication” is one of the fundamentals of scientology and according to L. Ron Hubbard [the founder of scientology], art is the highest level of communication that can be reached. The technical aspect, important thought it be, is less important than the communication of artistic emotion. Monique de la Bruchollerie, my teacher, used to always say: “you always have to be very well prepared, but when you get on stage, forget the preparation, forget wrong notes, forget memory lapses. Play with your heart and give to the audience.” So when it comes to it, she was near enough to the precepts of scientology, at least in theory. Having said which, Ron Hubbard explains how to put them into practice.

Do you believe that Youtube plays a part in the rehabilitation of some musicians?

Absolutely! Today, for example, there is a broad consensus which considers Cziffra as one of the great pianists of the last century. But did you know that at the time, Cziffra was constantly vilified by the critics? It didn't matter that he filled the hall anywhere he played, the critics never left off attacking him. He was considered a circus pianist! Today, thanks to Youtube, new generations have discovered him, making the vast majority of critics perform a U turn.

This year, I've only given a single concert in France, and for 30 years, the music press has systematically demolished my CDs at any point when it wasn't simply ignoring them. On the other hand, at the time there were still music broadcasts on the big channels, the mainstream press and the television kept supporting me. It's fair to say that during that era, the music press were the opinion formers, whereas that's changed now: new generations come to their own opinions by listening to artists on Youtube. That permits them to discover things by themselves, uninfluenced either by the record companies or the music press. It's far more democratic.

You give a lot of masterclasses. What is the most important advice that you would give to a young pianist?

When taking on a new piece, the first thing one should do is to work out the best fingering. You have to try them again and again, slowly and then gradually faster.  Very often, fingering and hand positions in a difficult passage depend on details of your anatomy: the task at hand is to find the fingering that suits you individually. It's a case of battling against the virus of impatience. If you don't proceed step by step, misfires can accumulate very quickly: in particular, bad fingering can create confusions which cause bad habits that are hard to get rid of.