For a long time Peter Katin’s reputation lay mainly in his playing of Chopin and Rachmaninov, together with the popular piano concertos of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Grieg. But it’s also true to say that when he made his name in the 1950s these were the works that impresarios and the public alike demanded, and in any case he always brought to them an aristocratic refinement (I do, however, remember hearing a superb account of Schubert’s last sonata from him in a recital 30 years ago and some fine Debussy in a broadcast after that). At long last he is now showing us more and more what a wide-ranging artist he is, notably in Grieg’s Lyric pieces for Unicorn Kanchana and now in Brahms.
The Op. 116 pieces are not as familiar as they might be, but this is a performance to remind one just how good they are. How essentially Brahmsian are their various moods, which range from storm to pathos and even (in No. 2) stoical resignation, while the quiet, sad eloquence of No. 4 is realized to perfection. Katin takes No. 5 faster and more plainly than the marked Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimentó might suggest, but his reticence (he calls it “an elusive fragment” in his excellent booklet note) works convincingly. His rubato is of the best kind that one doesn’t notice as such, and while technically he is spotless and there is clarity of texture one never feels that he underuses the pedal, so that we also get the richness that is characteristic of the music. We must doubtless also thank the chosen piano and location as well as the engineer Arne Akselberg for the very natural sound. Maybe Katin’s natural reticence makes the first of the Op. 117 Intermezzos rather cool for a lullaby, and the other two pieces could flow more spontaneously. Even in the first Rhapsody in B minor, he doesn’t pile on all the pressure, either in tempo or dynamically. But there it is, this playing is all of a piece, and very fine it is, too.
In the Handel Variations, Katin rightly immediately tells us that the Theme is fresh and healthy, even joyful in its stately eighteenth-century way: it is only later that Brahms and the pianist reveal complexities and shadows. This is an attractive performance, with mostly unhurried tempos: oddly enough, the Largamente minor-mode Var. No. 13 is quicker than usual, but that integrates it better with the others. On Decca, Jorge Bolet’s 1981 account of this work (with a fine coupling of Reger’s Telemann Variations and Fugue) is significantly more flexible rhythmically, and latterly, grander and more exciting, but Katin is satisfying too, and beautifully recorded. Both are splendid value at mid-price and Katin offers nearly 80 minutes of music.