Journal Of The Schubert Institute

Alfred Brendel has suggested that a modern piano is more effective for interpreting Schubert than an early one. In opting to record the two sets of Impromptus on a six-octave Clementi piano, Peter Katin clearly disagrees. In the booklet notes, he writes: ‘The change to the very different qualities of a square piano has made me aware of yet further possibilities in tonal colouring…. The results might belie the fact that the square pianos were not designed for large halls but for a rather more intimate atmosphere. This is why I decided to record the Impromptus in my own studio…’.

As good as his word, Katin provides quiet playing that is often carefully nuanced: the final pages of the C-minor and G flat Impromptus exemplifying his ability to differentiate between p, pp and ppp. Similarly, the balance between melody and accompaniment is often sensitively handled. Other effective quiet passages include melodies with a flowing accompaniment in the same hand (the G flat Impromptu and the first variation of the B flat Impromptu) and decorative virtuosity (the opening of the A flat-minor/major Impromptu, D899, and the fifth variation of the B flat Impromptu). The latter is a particularly striking example of Katin’s filigree touch, one which suggests string glissandi.

At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, however, the sound is often less convincing, the weak upper register of the square piano making it difficult to crescendo to reach a fortissimo. When a theme is repeated in octaves, such as in the B flat Impromptu, a cantabile sound is hard to sustain, and elsewhere the difference between f and ff is not always conveyed. While these shortcomings reflect the limitation of the instrument rather than the performer, the desire to approximate the intimate setting that might have been intended for the Impromptus seems to occasionally preclude moments of drama.

Little reservation, however, can be expressed over Katin’s command of the works’ structure, in particular the larger design of the second set of Impromptus. Tempos are well judged and some of the more personal interpretive decisions seem convincing. Katin’s decision to vary his dotted rhythm when accompanied by triplets, in particular, is governed by common sense: in the C-minor Impromptu and the third variation of the B flat Impromptu, the dotted rhythms are mostly played as a crotchet and quaver, and as a dotted quaver and semiquaver at cadences. Similarly, his arpeggiation of chords in the G flat Impromptu and variation of speed of arpeggiation according to the structural and expressive context shows sensitivity. For the high trills of the second and fifth variation of the B flat Impromptu, Katin prolongs to create a humorous effect, evoking an operatic prima donna revelling in the moment.

In the C-minor Impromptu and for part of the A flat-minor/major Impromptu from the earlier set, however, Katin’s sense of structure seems compromised by his variation of tempo. The opening section of the Impromptu in C minor contains arguably too much rubato and agogic hesitation to suggest an introduction rather than a true beginning. Only with the quicker and sustained tempo of the following A flat-major section does the piece seem to get under way; with later sections, however, the tempo again fluctuates. In the A flat-minor/major Impromptu, Katin uses rubato for the first and final appearance of the left-hand theme. Again the effect seems disruptive, impeding a sense of natural flow.

To reiterate, the most successful playing on this disc is found in the second set of Impromptus and in introspective passages throughout. Of particular success are the outer sections of the A flat Impromptu (D935/2) and the central A flat-minor/major section of the F-minor Impromptu (D935/1). The former is memorable for Katin’s ability to play simply, creating a naturalness of expression that never becomes dull; the latter shows that a weak upper register is not always a hindrance, as the high notes of the left-hand ‘duet’ evoke the sound of a dulcimer. Such a sound seems particularly apt in light of John Daverio’s comparison of the passage to a Proustian moments bienheureux, a recollection of a distant memory.(1)

Listening again to Murray Perahia’s recording of the C-minor Impromptu reminds one that tonal colouring and nuance is not only possible on an early instrument, and there are times in Katin’s interpretation when the power of a modern instrument is missed. But this is not often the case. With this recording on a piano close to those the composer might have used, Peter Katin provides some fresh perspective of familiar repertoire.

(1) J Daverio, Crossing Paths. Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, (OUP 2003), pp.55-56.

—Cameron Gardner