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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
The Complete Preludes
No.1 in C sharp minor, Op. 3/2 [4:34]
Preludes (10) for piano, Op. 23 [35:38]
Preludes (13) for piano, Op. 32 [39:26]
Peter Katin (piano)
rec. 1971, Springhead School, Northfleet, Kent. ADD
SOMM SOMMCD0110 [79:10]

I submit this review with some embarrassment, for it is shamefully late. SOMM Records reissued this recording, which was originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana, as long ago as 2011 to celebrate the 80th birthday of Peter Katin, which fell in November 2010. I received it when it was issued but before I could begin serious work on it we published a review by Rob Barnett. Reasoning that it would be preferable to focus instead on some other discs that had not received a first review on MusicWeb International, I laid it aside. Unfortunately, I then neglected to return to the disc until quite recently when I was prompted to look it out. So here, with apologies to Mr Katin and SOMM, is my overdue appraisal.

Peter Katin has enjoyed a long and distinguished career and if you search against his name on our home page you will find many reviews of his recordings. As much as anything else, the discs that we have reviewed encompass not only the core piano repertoire but also a number of his highly enterprising forays off the beaten track, including works by Finzi (review), Mathias (review) and Walton (review) So far as Rachmaninov is concerned, you can find his 1971 recording of the First Concerto on Eloquence (review). I’ve never heard that recording but, judging by these performances of the Preludes, Katin is an excellent advocate for the Russian master’s music.

Rachmaninov was one of the great piano virtuosi of his time – indeed, of any time – and he wrote these pieces to play himself so the technical demands he makes upon pianists are tremendous. He also presents significant interpretative challenges,, even when working on the small canvasses of pieces like these, none of which exceeds six minutes in length. It seems to me that Peter Katin surmounts whatever challenges these pieces propose with great success.

So, at the outset of his journey through these pieces he gives a compelling reading of the famous C sharp minor Prelude (Op. 3/2), a piece which Rachmaninov came to dislike so often was he prevailed upon to play it. Katin delivers the heroic and flamboyant B flat major Prelude (Op. 23/2) with great technical prowess and is powerful and rhythmically articulate in another of the best-known Preludes, the one in G minor (Op. 23/5). There’s more flamboyance, and great energy too, in the C major Prelude (Op 32/1) while the turbulent, often wild quasi-fantasia that is the A minor Prelude (Op 32/8) is played with great virtuosity.

Katin is no less successful in Rachmaninov’s more reflective music. He conveys the melancholy introspection of the F sharp minor Prelude (Op 23/1) very well indeed. In a different vein he handles the gentle lyricism of the D major Prelude (Op 23/4) most persuasively, offering limpid, relaxed playing yet increasing the intensity as and when the music requires it. The performance of the E flat major Prelude (Op 23/6) is distinguished by delicate, relaxed pianism and there’s winning delicacy on show also in the G major Prelude (Op 32/5). Katin provides his own succinct notes on each piece and he describes the B major Prelude (Op 32/11) as possessing ‘a gentle teasing charm’; that’s just how he puts it across at the keyboard.

That particular piece acts as an ideal foil to its predecessor, the B minor Prelude (Op. 32/10). This brooding, intense composition is my favourite among all 24 of these pieces and I relished Katin’s account of it. He builds the music to a towering climax and then is just as expertly controlled in taking the music back into the quiet depths from which it first stirred.

He tells us that he regards the E minor Prelude (Op. 32/4) as ‘an extraordinary piece of music, sinister, terrifying’ and he draws a parallel with the contemporaneous The Bells. His playing of the piece is very impressive. He projects the music strongly and with great dynamism. The more reflective central section is nicely done and when the fast music returns Katin is on electrifying form.

So, this is a very fine, authoritative set of the Rachmaninov Preludes. The recorded sound calls for a bit of comment. It’s perfectly acceptable but one can’t escape the realisation that the recording was made over forty years ago. The piano sounds rather bright, lacking the depth and richness of tone that one would expect from a modern recording – and which I’m sure Peter Katin actually provided in the studio. Furthermore the instrument can sound clangorous when played loudly – for example in Op. 32/4. However, the sound does not in any way inhibit enjoyment of the musicianship that’s on display here. The documentation includes brief notes on each piece by the pianist himself, which are very well worth reading. There’s also a note, written for the occasion by Christopher Morley, the long-serving music critic of the Birmingham Post newspaper and in addition there’s an interview which Katin gave to Colin Anderson and which originally appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of the magazine Classical Recordings Quarterly.

Most collectors will probably want a version of these pieces in modern sound – my personal recommendation would be Steven Osborne’s Hyperion recording, though Brian Reinhart admired it with reservations (review). However, this Katin set has a great deal to offer and is well worth consideration. This reissue is a welcome tribute to a highly distinguished pianist.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett