As for many composers the piano was a special instrument to Johannes Brahms; not only did it provide him with a means of income in his early years, it was the instrument with which he made his publishing debut and the one he returned to late in life when writing his series of smaller, more intimate works. During his middle period he became increasingly interested in variation form, writ ing sets of smaller works along with his two largest pieces for the instrument after the initial three piano sonatas, the Variations on a Theme of Handel, and the Variations on a Theme of Paganini. The piano provided him with a means for expression at every turn, and each and every stage in his life is recognizable by the style in which he wrote for the piano. Interestingly, the two recordings here [that is, the Katin and one by Barry Douglas], though programmed in two completely different ways, feature a good deal of the same music.
Peter Katin has an obvious love for the music of Brahms and the technique to pull it off. When listening to his rendition of the Handel Variations, one gets the sense that his Brahms is a powerful one, thick in texture and serious, yet he never sounds monotonous. The smaller groupings of varia tions all build to their goal, each climax measured in relation to the culminating one at the end of the work. The fugue itself is masterfully played; each voice is clearly delineated, the final notes of the work profoundly moving —not only spiritually, but palpably. The Rhapsodies feel more like devel oping improvisations. There is a looseness and freedom to the beat. This quality lends them their charm here. Katin takes advantage of this property to great effect; there is the feeling in these two works that both the young Brahms and the older one are in perfect harmony with each other. The op. 116 pieces are beautifully played, the lyrical nature of some pitted against the more aggressive one of others, yet it is in the op. 117 pieces that Brahms’s late music truly shines in Katin’s hands.
[This and the new Brahms CD by Barry Douglas] are both formidable recordings of similar music. Were it up to me I would urge one to get both, not only to see how styles of performance have changed over the last few decades, but to show just how successful (even with some of the similarities that exists between these two players) these two different approaches to Brahms can be. The sound of Douglas’s recording is a bit better, a bit more up-to-date, yet there is nothing about the sound of Katin’s recording that should deter one from acquiring it. As this is, however, only the first volume in Douglas’s intended cycle of the complete works for solo piano by Brahms, I for one eagerly anticipate the further releases. This Chandos release has not only whet my appetite but has given me an insatiable hunger for more. If top-rate per formances of Brahms are what one is looking for, then look no further: These are two very fine releases.