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Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Variations Brillantes op.12 [07:48], Four Mazurkas op.24 [12:14], Mazurka in F minor op.68/4 [04:44], Rondo in C minor op.1 [08:50], Souvenir de Paganini [04:03], Nocturne in C sharp minor [03:37], Three Waltzes op.64 [08:10], Sonata in C minor op.4: 3rd movement [03:52], Polonaise in G minor [03:08], Polonaise in B flat [02:25], Polonaise in A flat [03:19], Berceuse op.57 [05:05], Bolero op.19 [07:43]
Peter Katin plays his Collard & Collard square piano (c.1836)
Recorded in August 1996 at Peter Katinís studio
DIVERSIONS 24116 [74:58]

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As is his wont, Peter Katin provides a highly articulate booklet essay in which he explains his reasons for recording on this instrument. It is made clear that this is not the sort of piano on which Chopin or his pianistic contemporaries might have played in public, indeed its limited keyboard range (six octaves) rules out most of the bigger concert works; rather, it is the sort of piano he might have found in domestic situations while visiting friends or on which many a gifted amateur might have tried out Chopinís published works for his own enjoyment.

It is not particularly surprising that it is well suited to the shallow brilliance of an early work like the Variations Brillantes, and the C minor Rondo gets a splendid performance. But it also proves more than a match for the rarefied atmosphere of the Souvenir de Paganini (which, far from being the flashy virtuosic thing youíd expect from the title, is a most poetic meditation on the "Carnival of Venice") and the beautiful slow movement of the C minor sonata is warmly played.

It also proves thoroughly effective for the waltzes, or at least these three. The so-called "minute" waltz clocks in at a grateful 1:52 yet has a wonderful zest without becoming breathless. The same can be said of op.64/3 and these would be model performances on whatever instrument. I thought the opening of op.64/2 a little clipped (the theme is better presented later), but the middle section is beautiful and it is salutary to be reminded that the passages marked "più mosso" donít have to tear away at a prestissimo gallop.

The three early Polonaises go with a joyful appreciation of their attractions without any attempt to inflate them into something else. Katin points out that the Souvenir de Paganini is something of a blueprint for the Berceuse Ė a continually varied theme over a rocking, constant bass Ė so it is not surprising that his gently poetic handling of the earlier piece should blossom into deeply satisfying performance of the later one, every note glistening yet without any attempt to call attention to his own virtuosity. To play the Bolero on this small instrument might seem risky, but in fact it is remarkable what a rich and full sonority Katin extracts from it, bringing the programme to an infectious conclusion.

I had better say that my initial impression was far less favourable, since the op.24 Mazurkas seemed to me disappointingly dry and almost perfunctory. I must say that my ideal in these works is one that has not been preserved in recorded form. My last teacher, Ilonka Deckers-Küszler, was a remarkable woman who had abandoned the concert stage at an early age and returned to the world of teaching only in later life, gathering a crowd of disciples around her in Milan while remaining outside mainstream, Conservatorio-based, Italian musical life. By the time I went to her, her own technique had rusted away and generally it was better to do as she said, not as she did; but on one occasion she was caught up as if in a time-warp, her fingers found the right notes and she played Mazurka after Mazurka with a range of colour and poetic fantasy that I have never heard equalled. I remember in particular the first two of op.24. In the first, she somehow enveloped the listener in the upbeats to the tune, while in no.2 the hurdy-gurdy effects seemed to come from some distant place deep in the countryside, sometimes coming closer, sometimes drawing away again, but never touching the ground. I shall never be able to prove whether my memory is a true one or whether I am embroidering on the experience; however, confirmation of a kind comes from an anecdote regarding Annie Fischer. When Fischer (who had studied with Deckers-Küszler) heard that Joyce Hatto was to play the complete Mazurkas in two recitals in Warsaw, she exclaimed that this was "suicide! I canít imagine that even Ilonka would attempt such a thing and she really could play the Mazurkas". (Actually, Hatto was well-received).

Of recordings that do exist, I have already related on this site that the set of Mazurkas recorded by Nina Milkina seems to have similar roots to Deckers-Küszler; in this particular group of four, however, rehearing several versions, I found that Joyce Hattoís expansive performances have a particular poetic glow which recaptures for me some of those distant memories, while Milkina and Rubinstein (1938/9 versions) go a little more for the dance at times. Alongside any of these, I fear Katin communicates very little to me, or are the Mazurkas less suited to this instrument?

Somehow, I donít think the instrument is the issue, for Katinís performance of the C sharp minor Nocturne yields absolutely nothing to Milkinaís very beautiful version in terms of poetic atmosphere and liquid beauty, so I take it that the differences would remain in the Mazurkas no matter what piano was used. Either Katin is not on the wavelength of the Mazurkas or I am not on the right wavelength to receive his interpretations of them. These strictures regard the posthumous op.68/4 rather less, and there is the added interest of hearing an episode which exists in Chopinís hand but which was not included even in the Henle edition.

I hope I have made it clear that my reservations regard just four pieces out of eighteen; even if you agree, there is a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment to be found in the remaining fourteen, and a great deal to think about too. Those with a fairly comprehensive library of Chopin recordings played on a modern piano (including those by Katin himself) should certainly add this one.

Christopher Howell

see also review by David Wright

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