Katsaris Live in Moscow: International Tchaikovsky Competition, 1970

Cyprien Katsaris, piano (Piano21 P021 029-A)

18 August 2009 4 stars

KatsarisThis is perhaps one of the most interesting recordings to have come out on Cyprien Katsaris's own Piano21 label so far, providing a document of the pianist's appearance at the 1970 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. On its own, the disc is a rather piecemeal affair: the stringent repertoire requirements of the competition at the time included, in the first round, a study by each of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, as well as a Haydn sonata, a Bach Prelude and Fugue and a piece from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons. The sound is not great – including one moment in the Rachmaninoff the Étude-Tableau Op.39 No.1 where three or four bass notes seem to come from an entirely different instrument – but more than acceptable.

The playing of the 19 year-old Katsaris is, on the other hand, astonishing, particularly in the studies that open the disc. In his own amusing reminiscences of the event, he explains how he changed the order of his programme at the last minute to start with Chopin's B minor Étude, Op.25. The decision to start with such a barnstorming technical challenge rather than the advertised Bach seems to have caused something of a sensation, the performance itself is breathtaking, and there was some incredulity at the diminuitive Frenchman being able to thunder through double octaves with his small hands. This is followed up by a performance of the Liszt – the 'Feux follets' – which a feat of dexterity a pianist at any stage in his or her career would be proud of, while the Rachmaninoff is clearly defined, impassioned and powerful.

Some of the pianist's trademarks are already in evidence, not only in the quicksilver finger-work but also the delight in voicing. In the Fugue of Bach's C sharp minor Prelude and Fugue (from Book One of the Forty-eight), each statement of the subject is perhaps brought out with rather unnecessary over-emphasis, but Katsaris' technique allows for some magical effects in 'October' from The Seasons. As one of the contemporary reports reprinted in the booklet tells us, there was concern at the time as to how the pianist would bring his first round to a rousing conclusion: having already used up the Chopin all he had left was a Haydn Sonata. Yet his performance of the C major Sonata No.48 evidently won the Muscovites over and it is sparkling playing; others have brought greater profundity to the central Adagio but the outer movements bristle with humour.

The second round saw Katsaris tackle more adventurous repertoire. This included Pierre Boulez's Sonata No.2, a performance which, along with the prolonged applause following the round one Chopin, was not preserved on the tape. 'Apparently', Katsaris wryly observes, 'Boulez's music was not to the taste of the Soviet authorities.' He remembers a jury member particularly admiring the Boulez performance, however, despite the fact that a memory lapse had forced him to improvise for almost half the piece's two-and-a-half minute duration. What we do have still, though, is a forceful account of Shostakovich's D minor Prelude and Fugue (Op. 87 No.24) and a beautifully turned Tchaikovsky Doumka (op.59). Contemporary music did make an appearance in the form of Jaan Rääts's Toccata (1968), a compulsory piece for that year's competition, which Katsaris still despatches with blistering virtuosity.

Katsaris didn't make it beyond the second round – he had Rachmaninoff's Third and Tchaikovsky's First up his sleeve for the final – and the competition was eventually won by John Lill and Vladimir Krainev. However, as a document of his campaign, of a by-gone era of a legendary competition, and of the beginnings of a fascinating artist's career, this release is invaluable.

By Hugo Shirley