Mozart Don Juan Narodowy Institut Fryderyka Chopin

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Don Juan (Giovanni) (transcription for piano solo by Georges Bizet, 1866) 
Cyprien Katsaris (piano)
rec. 2021, Witold Lutoslawski Concert Studio,
Narodowy Institut Fyderyka Chopin NIFCCD141-42 [2 CDs: 156]

Before recorded music, being a music lover of orchestral or operatic works was difficult; you might hear a piece only once in your lifetime. But there was another route available for learning these types of works: the ubiquitous transcriptions for solo piano. These transcriptions, of varying quality, allowed one to study the score, and play through to learn the work more intimately than just relying upon a distant memory. And they were very common; if you read the Vienna newspapers of the 1820s, you see a steady stream of transcriptions of Rossini’s operas for piano solo and piano four hands.

In about 1865 or 1866, the music publisher Huegel commissioned the young composer Georges Bizet to transcribe Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, to capitalize on revivals of the work in Paris. The combination of these two great composers makes this set of two discs of irresistible interest, though the results are somewhat mixed. And of course, the modern listener can pull a dozen recordings of Don Giovanni off the shelf at any time, rendering this exercise somewhat unnecessary.

As of 1865-66, Bizet’s opera Pecheurs de perles (1863) had been staged to iffy reviews and general lack of interest, and he was still struggling to get his works performed. His Ivan IV had been rejected and he was unable to make a living doing composition. He survived by giving lessons and arranging compositions of others, including a great many transcriptions of opera, including Gounod’s Faust and Romeo and Juliette, Mignon and Hamlet by Thomas, and the Second Piano Concerto of Saint-Saëns. So, Bizet was hardly a household name when called upon to arrange Don Giovanni

The liner notes for this release greatly oversell this arrangement; it is neither a genius work of transgression nor particularly unusual for Bizet.  Like Beethoven’s many folk song arrangements, Bizet’s Don Juan was principally written in order to survive. But that does not mean it is devoid of merit; there is much of interest here, brought out well by pianist Cyprien Katsaris. Katsaris may be best known for his exceptional performances of the Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, so he is no stranger to piano transcriptions. Katsaris also recorded Là ci darem la manofrom Bizet’s transcription roughly thirty years ago, so this project may have been percolating with him for decades.

The reduction of the voices and orchestra into the solo piano voice does allow us to focus on Mozart’s music without distraction. That is a two-edged sword, since as a piano solo one also misses the variation provided by orchestration and different voices. There is an unavoidable repetitiveness when the introductions and ritornellos duplicate the vocal line that follows or precedes them. As a result, the transcription does not do either Mozart or Bizet any favors. A bit of monotony and tedium is fairly inevitable, and I found it difficult to get through the entire opera in one sitting.

Bizet’s arrangement is quite faithful to Mozart. Do not expect a Liszt-style transcription or reminiscence of the opera, reinterpreting the work into something completely new and different. The technical difficulty level is fairly high, especially the great many lengthy runs in thirds at high velocity, though Bizet helpfully provides a great many suggested fingerings in the score. Katsaris manages those runs and other technical difficulties with aplomb. He is particularly effective in emphasizing the vocal lines in the larger ensemble works. For example, the Quintet Non ti fidar o misera in Act I is particularly successful. The varied and contrasting syncopated rhythms help significantly in keeping it interesting.

In the Act I Finale, Katsaris takes parts at a rather breakneck speed, but with amazing control and precision. The second act Finale comes off a bit less successfully. The key sequence of the statue of the Commendatore (or Commandeur in Bizet’s French version) seizing Don Juan and dragging him off to hell just does not have nearly the impact of the orchestral version on recordings, and certainly not of a staged version.  That’s probably unavoidable due to the format, and not necessarily a shortcoming of either Bizet or Katsaris, but it does point up exactly how vital Mozart’s orchestration is to the success of the opera.

The recording features quite good dynamic range of about 20 dB. The sound of Katsaris’ Bechstein piano reverberates a fair amount. Sound decay is rather long, blurring some of the phrases. The audio is nevertheless clear and bright.

Mark S. Zimmer

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