My admiration for Peter Katin is both well-known and well-founded. This may
lead a cynic to castigate me as being prejudicial ... and, with this anxiety
in mind, I decided to review this CD in a highly critical spirit. I placed
the music before me accompanied by a pen and notebook to jot down any flaw,
mistake or detail that I did not like. Seventy minutes later the notebook
was blank and I had experienced not only a wonderful feast of quality piano
music but performed with total accuracy and complete faithfulness to the
score. It was a rare experience and yielded that inexplicable joy that only
the greatest music and finest performers can render.
The use of language creates problems. There is no doubt that the Liszt
Sonata is great music, one of the towering masterpieces
of the piano repertoire. And then, I hear people talk about some of Schubert's
piano music being great as well, and while I do not wish to
disparage the melodious Schubert, one cannot possibly use the same adjective
fairly for, in so doing, injustice will be levelled at Liszt.
This Sonata was introduced to me by my professor, Humphrey Searle
at the RCM. Humphrey was, and probably remains, the world expert on the music
of Liszt and we went through it bar by bar several times.
Katin's performance is exemplary and he observes all the detail
in the score. The opening Lento assai is sotto voce and arresting.
The allegro energico, beginning at bar 8, is exactly that and the
bass marcato passages are precisely captured and when, in bar 19,
the composer calls for agitato and, later, a crescendo and
più crescendo that is what we get. Every phrase is beautifully
shaped and the journeys to the big climaxes are always a natural progression
of the music. At bar 23, we truly have sempre forte ed agitato and
some dazzling finger work. The range of his staccato is quite amazing.
At the first of the notorious double octave passages at bar 47 all we can
do is be overwhelmed by the power and stunning playing and feel so humbled
realising that we could never play like this, and at such a confident speed.
The many distinguished pianists who 'fake' this passage with 'slowing downs',
and falsely explain this as rubato are legion. To add to the formidable
difficulties of the double octaves the composer later calls for it to be
sempre staccato ed energico assai. And it is ... here. At bar 98 we
have the 'big tune' marked grandioso. Fortunately, Katin does not
vamp it as some pianists do, nor does he relegate it to Edwardian pomposity
or medieval self-importance. Fifty bars later, at the cantando
expressivo passage the wonderful warm romantic lyricism is expertly captured
and when it reappears in octaves and in F sharp minor in the quasi
adagio section the tenderness has a genuine beauty which is never allowed
to become mawkish. There are many important details that listeners could
pass over. For example, the long trills are beautifully controlled and so
well-integrated. How many times have we heard lesser pianists make such an
emphasis on trills as if it were a theatrical device.
Not only was Liszt writing in a romantic style but a classical style as well,
as shown in the D flat major fugal passage marked allegro
Peter Katin observes Liszt's stringendos which precede the fearsome
double octave passages. How many 'great' pianists do not? ... and we know
why. And the presto double octave passage leads to prestissimo
still in double octaves and many pianists hardly reach an allegretto.
The recording was made sixteen years ago and I have heard recordings with
a brighter sound but the sound here is completely acceptable. I have heard
some more exciting performances but they interpret Liszt as if he were a
thumping circus performer and such readings are seriously flawed.
This superlative performance is class.
The Brahms is also faithfully played and with a rugged grandeur and infectious
swagger. There is a smart and enviable elegance in another committed performance
of insight which enhances this very fine work.
The Sonnet 123 is another performance of distinction and, as often
with this pianist, it was a thought-provoking performance in its extraordinary
and fascinating unfolding.
see also David Wright's interview
with Peter Katin