Audiophile Audition

British piano virtuoso Peter Katin (b. 1930) first came to my attention by way of his ill-matched appearance in the soundtrack of The L-Shaped Room, a film starring Leslie Caron and Brock Peters that demanded the furies of the Brahms D Minor Concerto to express its passions. In a recent email to me, Peter Katin expresses his sentiments on that “score”:

>Dear Mr. Lemco,
Thank you very much for your email. The L-shaped Room was a dreadful film and shouldn’t have happened, in my view. I can’t even now imagine why Bryan Forbes wanted the Brahms to be a background.

Katin has long transcended any derogatory associations with the movie, having established himself among the leading British virtuosos, on a plane with Solomon and Clifford Curzon. This collation by the rp music people opens with a 78 rpm inscription (6 April 1948) of the Bach B-flat Minor Prelude and Fugue , WTC I. An “experimental recording” made in Southwark Cathedral, the shellac suffers a gritty sound quality typical of its era, but the pianism remains direct, inflected, and stylistically effective. The Mozart A Minor Rondo , from a studio recording, jumps ahead twenty years (27 July 1968), to the venue of Colfe’s Grammar School, whose acoustic does more justice to Katin’s tone. The Rondo itself proves itself a minor miracle of slow variation in the form, its curling filigree and harmonic shifts well anticipatory of Hummel and Chopin, Romanticism in general. Even in the midst of its empfindsamkeit (emotional) ethos, a galant objectivity reigns in the course of Katin’s ministrations, moving each phrase within the sequence of variants to its logistic point, as Rachmaninov would have it.

The eternal “Moonlight” Sonata (rec. 1976) derives from Katin’s own studio archives. From the opening, Adagio sostenuto’s repeated arpeggios, the music elicits great poise and clear serenity, girded by a vibrant capacity for emotional depth. The Allegretto resonates quite brilliantly, the accents pungent and lithe. The Presto , of course, assumes a torrential, sturm und drang life of its own, balancing Beethoven’s passionately chromatic bravura with a sense of drama that exploits the keyboard’s capacity for chiaroscuro. Katin’s drive and explosive hard patina may remind auditors of a similar approach via Rudolf Serkin. The two Schubert Impromptus from his Op. 90 (D. 899) derive from a late 1950s LP of unrecalled locale. The G-flat and E-flat contributions correspond, exactly, to Dinu Lipatti’s choices for what became his last recital from Besancon. The G-flat’s immediate, vocal fluidity becomes enhanced both by Katin’s velvet touch and his urgent bass chords and trill. The E-flat Major warrants being attributed to a Chopin etude in everything but by name. Katin’s wrist action easily accommodates its seamless transitions and bass drama, moving with impressive speed to the second subject, a kind of nationalist march of vague Austro-Parisian descent. Katin imbues the almost breathless figures with a passionate urgency, quite effective.

The slightly blurred colors of Debussy’s 1890 Suite Bergamasque lost favor with the composer himself, but their suave charm continues to entrance us. Katin claims Colfe’s Grammar School as the recording venue, captured in public performance on LP from the mid-1960s. The F Major Prelude receives from Katin its requisite degree of rubato, the metrics sliding in easy figures, even as watery rills in an enchanted garden. The playful Menuet , which loves to dance around the F and G, finds a dark grace with Katin, who plays with its mercurial textures and color schemes. While the treble tiptoes, something more enigmatic, even pentatonic and nostalgic, creeps into the melodic line. Clair de Lune receives expansive treatment, all harps and water lilies, and island magician Prospero would concur, for we are but the stuff dreams are made on. The Passepied in F-sharp Minor calls upon Katin’s sense of antiquity, the ostinato staccati in the left hand urging and paradoxically steadying the supple luxuries of the upper voices. Katin reveals the movement as a colorized toccata in a diversity of touches and hues, romantic, demure, melancholy and resigned, all magically at once.

The majestic hybrid 1846 Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major by Chopin Katin identifies clearly as his Olympia label studio inscription (15 June 1987) from St. George’s, Bristol. Besides the ubiquitous polonaise rhythm, Chopin invokes much of the Romantic era with its pre-occupation with the falling fourth as an intervallic motto. Its various dramatic labyrinths often invoke the idea that the piece forms a kind of ballade-nocturne in national metrics, especially as its middle section moves to a meditative, chorale-like B Major. Katin’s displays a finely-honed melodic contour throughout, aided by some sterling jeu perle . If Katin’s recording were offered to George Sand, it would likely produce the amorous and psychically liberating effect the composer intended.

—Gary Lemco