Audiophile Audition

The Chopin inscribed here by British piano virtuoso Peter Katin (b. 1930) traverses 30 years, from 1976-2006, performances taped at various venues and on diverse instruments. The B Minor Sonata reading derives from a 1976 session at Peter Katin’s own studio. Despite a percussive sonority, Katin infuses a grand passion and feral dignity into the opening Allegro maestoso, crammed as it is with multifarious ideas and contrasting motives. In its more reposed moments, the work yields to both a tender nostalgia and the organic nature of its ornaments, which coalesce into seamless runs and glistening arpeggios. A hybrid of tumultuous ballade and sublime nocturne, the first movement anticipates the interior emotional strife infused into the piece as a whole.

Katin’s Scherzo: Molto in E-flat Major vivace provides a breathless counter current to his broad approach to the first movement. Katin virtually blisters the keyboard with the lightning cascading figures that receive a temporary respite in a syncopated middle section. The heart of the Sonata, the Largo opens with a minute drama in dotted rhythm, then segues via a vivacious trill into a mesmeric series of cantabile waves of sensuous serenity, the harmonic line in plastic motion. A mighty sequence begins the B Minor Finale: Presto, non tanto, with a high dominant seventh chord that catapults us into a gallop (a la Berlioz) towards the abyss. Katin conveys melancholy intimacy in the Largo, heroic sweeping propulsion in the Finale.

The Waltzes of Op. 64 Katin performed at the Wigmore Hall, London in November 1993. The D-flat Major receives a generously expansive treatment, one that belies its grim epithet as the “minute” waltz, when in fact it is merely small in scope, not nobility. The eternal C-sharp Minor lilts and scurries in beguiling fashion, nothing of “British diffidence” about it. In plastic ennobled sculpture of the melodic line, Katin proves himself a worthy heir to the late Solomon in the music of Chopin. The under-rated A-flat Major, with its subtle rhythmic shifts, enjoys the brisk articulation Katin bequeaths it, reminding us of what a thin stylistic line in Chopin separates waltz from mazurka. The Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1 Katin performs (October 2006) on a distinctly resonant Bluethner instrument at St. Augustine’s Church, Bexhill-on-Sea. The drooping figures of the middle section carry a piquant wistfulness.

The Nocturne in D-flat Major, like the Op. 64 Waltzes, originates from the Wigmore Hall recital of 1993. Katin weaves an undulating fabric of unbroken poetic nostalgia, broken only by an audience cough off the beat. The careful etching of each phrase might owe something to the influence of Dinu Lipatti, who also afforded this elegant moment in music its due transparent mysticism. The epic 1841 Fantasie in F Minor was recorded in concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, January 1994. A restless dramatic ballade whose only repose lies in its B Major episode, the piece meanders through a staccato, martial idea in an improvised fashion that soon carries us into a more swirling world of agitated syncopes. Katin holds its varied sequences together with demonic rigor, allowing the occasional poetry to hurl itself, polonaise-fashion, into Polish national pride. After the B Major peace accord, the irresistible catastrophe resumes, now in huge octaves that threaten the Deluge. The march tune seems to instantiate Joyce’s “I Hear an Army” from his Chamber Music collection; here, mitigated by a wraithlike cadenza and a penultimate chord that suggests a world of its own.

Finally, the 1831, 1836 Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise from Bexhill on the aforementioned Bluethner keyboard. A purely bravura hybrid piece, intended to display the artist’s legato and leggierissimo and later capacity for martial ornamentation. My favorite performance remains the dragonfly Hofmann’s 1938 reading at the MET. Katin, nevertheless, infuses his personal digital prowess and magic on its alternately dreamy and exuberant figures, to which the Bluethner adds a touch of archaic finesse. A veteran’s seamless security Katin brings to the Chopin table, and that combination wins the berries.

—Gary Lemco