The Four Musketeers of the Piano – Istanbul Music Festival review

14 June 2019
By Peter Quantrill
Katsaris and friends shake the rafters in a high-class jam session – review by Peter Quantrill

Imagine the waves of sound crashing from four pianos side by side and you might first think of In C, the epochal work of 1960s Minimalism by Terry Riley. There was nothing minimal, however, about the programme led by Cyprien Katsaris in the third concert of this year’s Istanbul Music Festival.

The tone was set by Carl Burchard’s transcription of the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. To the Turkish pianist Zeynep Ucbarasan fell the proclamation of the hero’s opening trumpet melody, with George-Emmanuel Lazaridis treading lightly in the steady march of the pilgrims, Katsaris himself adding filigree decoration above like the miraculous vines sprouting from Tannhäuser’s staff and Janis Vakarelis doing much of the heavy lifting in cascades of string parts that, when transferred to the piano, require an iron sense of pulse and the arm weight of a circus strongman. Small wonder he looked like a man in need of a stiff drink at the end.

"Piyanonun 4 silahsoru": 4 arms of the piano

Without travelling anywhere near 18th-century Venice, Nicolas Economou’s version of ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons drew from the quartet a more unanimous attack and a nicely turned ear to the Baroque flourishes of the original solo part shared between them. The only available answer to ‘why play Vivaldi on four pianos?’ is ‘Because we can’, and the pleasure for listeners lay in leaving preconceptions at the door and eavesdropping on four fine musicians who evidently knew each other for much longer than the rehearsal time available to them on this occasion. Ravel’s Boléro came to a sticky end, but this was not a night to dwell on finer points. It was a festival event par excellence, high-spirited from the off, and appreciated as such by a full house at the Süreyya Opera House. A bluesy take on the Song of the Toreador segued into an outrageous carnival of keyboard lionism in the march from Bizet’s Carmen.

Even under the pianistic avalanche, however, a gentler chord of extra-musical harmony could be heard in the programming of artists and repertoire. When Katsaris returned to the stage at the start of the second half and addressed the audience in English, his declaration that he brought ‘a message of peace’ was received only with warmth and sympathy. To present a Greek pianist (Vakarelis) on the same stage as a Turkish one (Ucbarasan), led by the Cypriot Katsaris, could be a counted a bold move when tension between the two countries, historically hostile to one another, has been raised by recent speeches from Turkey’s president.

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From left to right: Janis Vakarelis, Zeynep Ucbarasan, Cyprien Katsaris, and George-Emmanuel Lazaridis

Nothing daunted, Katsaris had left until last a rip-roaring suite from Mikis Theodorakis’s score to Zorba the Greek. English readers might imagine an equivalent recital in London where an Anglo-French group finish off with playing a fantasy on the Marseillaise, and to hell with Brexit. Impish, genial, fleet-fingered and tieless, Katsaris still has the audience eating out of his hand.


The Istanbul Music Festival continues tonight with piano duets from Ufuk and Bahar Dördüncü. On Saturday, Yuja Wang plays Gershwin and Shostakovich.

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