Challinor - Saint-Saens piano - Piano21

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Piano Works and Transcriptions
Cyprien Katsaris (piano)
rec. 2020/21, Église Évangélique Saint-Marcel, Paris
Booklet in French, English and German
PIANO 21 P21064-N [2 CDs: 146 & DVD: 17]

Cyprien Katsaris set up his Piano21 label in order to record repertoire that other record companies would shy away from and he has given us many rarities along the way. To be sure some record companies have become more adventurous in exploring unsung repertoire in recent years but I imagine that even in the centenary of his death (this was recorded in 2021) there are pieces here that are unlikely to find a home elsewhere. Katsaris has managed to unearth some real curiosities including transcriptions of three familiar large scale works, the Carnival of the Animals, the Third Symphony and the G minor Piano concerto alongside assorted piano solos and the first ever commissioned film score.

I will start off by saying that this is such an adventure and wholly enjoyable if like me you revel in the transcription genre and Saint-Saëns’ music. Katsaris opens with Lucien Garban’s solo transcription of the Carnival of the Animals, commissioned soon after the composer’s death but published in dribs and drabs over the next few decades, only published in its entirety in June 1951. Lucien Garban was a composer and arranger who studied with Gabriel Fauré and had a long association with publishers Durand, transcribing many works by Ravel, Debussy, Dukas and others.  This is no hack work but an arrangement that needs a skilled pianist to carry it off; nevertheless Katsaris finds opportunity to add his own touches, often small things such as changing the single notes of Fossils to octaves but in Lions royal march creating a much thicker, regal texture and including the tremolando opening that Garben omitted. There are many beautiful moments, notably in Cuckoo in the depths of the wood with its masterful balancing of textures and the quicksilver aviary that follows. In pianists Katsaris, with many ‘wrong’ notes, adds despairing exclamations in English, French, Greek and Japanese; I can sympathise – my practise sessions are often accompanied by such outbursts – thankfully they do not intrude too much on repeated listening. The Organ symphony closes the first disc; this is an even more astonishing transcription and Katsaris revels in its challenges. The arrangement is by Percy Goetschius, an American music theorist and indeed the score is fully marked with his analysis. There are some sections which seem intrinsically unpianistic such as the first theme string figurations in the opening movement and though Katsaris dashes them off easily I do feel that some of the murmuration of the sound is lost with the piano’s attack. For the slow movement Katsaris feels that the music is better served by the transcription by Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967); he maintains more of the texture than Goetschius does especially towards the end where Goetschius lets the triplets drop out of the mix. The third movement is jaw-dropping in terms of sheer passion and fervour and this continues into the final movement. My only quibble here is that in his attempt to match the clamour of the trombones Katsaris thickens the texture almost to the point of ugliness though thankfully this is just one small section in this marvellous transcription. Between these two pieces he plays two transcriptions by the composer. The Hymne à Victor Hugo was an orchestral work written for an ultimately abandoned project to unveil a statue to the poet. Saint-Saëns used a theme that Hugo loved and believed to be by Beethoven – as did many people apparently though it is clear that it is not; it is actually a music hall song with the unlikely title the cat metamorphosed into a woman! Saint-Saëns manages to raise it from banality, even bringing it to the point of heroism in this grandiose work. The Bacchanale from the opera Samson and Delilah is well known though this straightforward but effective and virtuosic transcription is not. Katsaris plays it for all it’s worth and leaves enough in reserve for a thrilling ending.

The second CD continues in virtuoso vein with Bizet’s spectacular solo version of the G minor Concerto, which only appeared in print after Bizet’s death. Once again Katsaris adds some touches most notably at the end of the finale where he manages to add the orchestral tune into the mix, giving the triplet octaves to the right hand.  Africa, Saint-Saëns’ evocative if unauthentic impression of the continent was originally for piano and orchestra but arranged by the composer later; he acknowledged its difficulty describing it as this horror and offering an optional cut to spare others the dismal spectacle of a sweating, dishevelled human being battling fruitlessly with the piano. Katsaris naturally tackles this wonderful horror with his usual ease and aplomb…and no need to make that cut. Three original solos follow, the dazzling allegro appasionato that Katsaris played to earn his place at the Paris Conservatoire in his teens and two seductive waltzes. The Valse Canariote, written after a visit to the Canary Isles in 1890, spins and dances with sparkling figuration and has a more rustic, rollicking waltz for its second theme. The Valse nonchalante was recorded by the composer in 1904 (it can be heard with all his solos on Marston Records 520542 review) and Katsaris does not suffer in comparison. The famous Danse macabre appears in Liszt’s transcription; Liszt admitted to Saint-Saëns that he felt unable to fully reproduce Saint-Saëns’ rich orchestral palette and Katsaris, like Horowitz before him, adds more to try and address this. The results are amazing though it is the piano’s rich palette that is augmented; this is a scintillating arrangement that gives Horowitz a run for his money and includes some interesting harmonic touches – devilish indeed!

A wonderful curiosity comes in the form of Saint-Saëns’ music for André Calmettes and Charles Le Bargy’s 1908 film the Assassination of the Duke of Guise. The set includes an audio version on the second CD but as an added bonus there is a DVD containing the film, all 17 minutes of it, restored by Lobster Films accompanied by Katsaris. The film was produced by Le Film d’Art, a company created to improve the tone of the cinema which in its novelty had become something of a fairground spectacle as the booklet points out. In the interests of cultural awareness the plot is based on an actual historical event, the assassination of the Duke by the order of Henry III in December 1588. Detailed historical background to the event and about Le Film d’Art is given in the booklet as are details of cast, production and restoration of the film as well as many fine illustrations. The film is in five short tableau; the first introduces us to the Duke and his wife who has received a note warning of a plot against her husband while the second shows King Henry instructing his royal guard. After a scene with the Duke and his counsellors we come to the meat of the plot where the Duke is set upon by the guard and the King is shown examining the body before it is cast into the fireplace to burn. All the actors are from the Comédie Française and there is the usual posturing and melodrama as well as perhaps unintentional comedy moments such as the guard creeping up on the Duke and all pretending to bow as he turns; the acting itself though is not so over-the-top as to be humorous. Saint-Saëns’ music suits the subject matter well and is much more chromatic than I expected offering some interesting harmonic surprises. The overture’s restless theme over a rumbling bass is as dramatically prophetic as one could wish and the creeping conspiracy is mirrored by the tip-toeing chromaticism of the fourth tableau and the sudden presto of the assassination itself. The extended music after the dark deed as the King examines his dead enemy, with its sparse intensity and enigmatic harmony makes one wonder at the Kings state of mind but there is nothing enigmatic about the rise to dramatic triumph in the music’s virtuosic final pages. Saint-Saëns scored the soundtrack for strings, harmonium and piano but the film would have probably been shown with solo piano as least as often, doubtless in this transcription by Leon Roques which was published by Durand a year after the film’s release. 

This is an enterprising and enjoyable disc though perhaps better to digest in smaller doses especially in the extreme virtuoso items of disc two but there is something for everyone here and Katsaris sounds as fresh as ever, with leonine technique, inventive creative powers and a gift for keyboard colour. An exciting release.

Rob Challinor

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arr. Lucien Garban (1877-1959) and Cyprien Katsaris (born 1951)

The Carnival of the Animals (1886)

arr. Camille Saint-Saëns

Hymne à Victor Hugo Op.69 (1881)

Samson et Dalila – Act III Bacchanale Op.47 (1877)

arr. Percy Goetschius (1853-1943) and Cyprien Katsaris

Symphony No.3 in C minor Organ Op.78 (1886)


arr. Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and Cyprien Katsaris

Piano Concerto No.2 Op.22 (1868)

Allegro Appasionato Op.70 (1884)

Valse Canariote Op.88 (1890)

Valse nonchalante Op.110 (1898)

arr. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Cyprien Katsaris

Danse Macabre Op.40 (1874)

arr. Léon Roques (1839-1923)

The Assassination of the Duke of Guise Op.128 (1908)


The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908)

Charles le Bargy (Henry III)

Albert Lambert (The Duke of Guise)

Gabrielle Robinne (The Marquisse de Noirmoutier)

Berthe Bovy (Page)

André Calmettes (producer)

Charles le Bargy (producer)