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Dazzling: Cyprien Katsaris plays 19 Chopin Waltzes

The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988

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David M. Greene


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From the evidence at hand, it ap­pears that Frederic Chopin wrote his first waltz--not one of the canonical 14 (he wrote at least 20)--in 1827. By that time Johann Strauss, Sr. and Joseph Lanner, the initiators of the waltz craze, had broken up their part­nership and were going it alone, so it is at least possible that Chopin had been inspired by some of their com­positions. But, like certain epidemic diseases, the waltz had lain dormant (in the Austrian boondocks) until, in the latter days of the previous cen­tury, it began to break out in more cosmopolitan areas. (The Congress of Vienna was waltzing when Strauss and Lanner were scarcely teenagers.)

There is no doubt, however, that Chopin was keenly aware of the elder Strauss and his sometime partner. He played two concerts in Vienna in 1829, and was so successful that he returned the next year to seek his for­tune. He did not find it there but he evidently heard perhaps more waltzes than he wanted to. Shortly before Christmas 1830, in a letter to his fami­ly in Warsaw, he mentions the "hotel evenings." "During supper," he ex­plains, "Strauss or Lanner play waltzes .. .After every waltz they get huge applause; and if they play a Quodlibet, or jumble of opera, song, and dance, the hearers are so over­joyed they don't know what to do with themselves. It shows the corrupt taste of the Viennese public."

A month later he seems to have been even more disillusioned. Writing to his old teacher Joseph Elsner, he says in some astonishment: "Here waltzes are termed opuses! And Strauss and Lanner, who play them for dancing, are called Kapellmeistern. That does not mean that everyone thinks like that; indeed, nearly everyone laughs about it; but only waltzes get printed."

Elsewhere he said, ambiguously, that he could not compete with Strauss and Lanner as a waltz com­poser, and did not intend to try. His basic models were almost certainly earlier piano waltzes. Beethoven wrote some. So did his pupil Czerny. As early as 1800 Clementi published a couple of sets. In 1812 Weber pro­duced a ·cycle of "Favorite Waltzes for the [Austrian-born] Empress of France" and his famous "Invitation to the Dance," a concert waltz-rondo that probably paved the way for Chopin.

Chopin intended his waltzes to be listened to seriously, not to serve as dance music or aural wallpaper. (All but one of the 14 bear opus numbers!) His biographer Bernard Gavoty (Chopin, New York, 1977) cites Alfred Cortot's categorization of them into three groups: (1) Valses brillantes on the Weberian model; (2) salon waltzes (dreamy, sometimes drifting into mazurka rhythms); (3) allusive waltzes (poetic tone pictures based on the waltz rhythm). Chopin turned out, on the average, about one a year from 1829 to 1835, and then returned on­ly sporadically to the form. His final waltz, written in 1848, was never published, and has vanished.

What about Cyprien Katsaris? you ask impatiently. As a self-taught piano fumbler, I am leery of evaluating pianists. I particularly admire his rubato here, which is as flexible and elastic as I've ever heard. But I have to say that for better or worse, these readings are different. Katsaris is a dazzler rather than a dreamer. If you prefer glitter to sentiment, you'll like him.

Review of Cyprien Katsaris plays 19 Chopin Waltzes on inside cover

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