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CHOPIN. Peter Katin Plays Chopin, Volume One. Ballade No 4 in F Minor, Op 52; Three Mazurkas, Op 59; Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op 58; Barcarolle, Op 60; Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op 61. Peter Katin (piano) Olympia OCD186 DDD. [75' 00"].



Listening to this disc convinced me why I have hitherto not been particularly espoused to the music of Chopin and that is because his music is so badly played and by those who are revered as performers. His music is often played as sickly sentiment, mawkish slush and with ghastly rubatos and in frilly ways which leaves the music weak and effeminate. It is often degraded into a sort of cheap salon music ... pretty and tinkling, and how irritating that can sound. I have just heard a famous pianist play some of the waltzes and it sounded like inconsequential Johann Strauss ... simply, quite awful.

The image of Chopin's music being wispy as well as wishy-washy is a myth that must be countered. It does Chopin's reputation no good and my years of hearing his music vandalised has left a legacy of injustice. While he is not a barnstorming composer he should not be presented as an anaemic composer. If his music has strengths, and it does, we need robust and convincing performances or else his music merely degenerates into anaesthesia.

Katin avoids any cheapening or depreciating of Chopin in that he does not play his music as feathery dust or as if depicting fairyland.

That main work on this disc is the B Minor Sonata. The difficulty in performing this work, apart from the high level of technical skill required, is in the structure of the first movement which teems with invention ... so much so, that to hold it together as a whole calls for a feat of musical engineering. What is needed for a successful performance is a complete garment and not a patchwork quilt. What Katin gives us is a beautiful seamless garment. I listened to other performances and their stitching was showing, and, in some cases, there were some ghastly tears. The music was episodic as if several miniatures loosely tied together in a lucky dip.

This opening movement contains not only a rich plethora of contrasts but is often possessed of a satisfying beauty which Peter never allows to become mawkish. Thankfully, there are no lingering affectations or rubatos and, as a consequence, the music does not disintegrate. It is warm and glowing meeting the highest expectations.

The scherzo has a middle section that does not seem to 'belong' but the Vivace sparkles in the hands of this truly brilliant pianist.

The shadow of the death of Chopin's father may hang over the impressive Largo where Katin has a really amazing cantabile tone. The movement does become a trifle self-indulgent and introspective. It is a very private and personal piece whose secrets we may never penetrate but the wonderful variety of colour in this performance keeps the music vibrant. It is played with great sensitivity and tenderness. To enjoy it fully, you have to sit and listen attentively to all those well-judged nuances. After all, good music is not to be heard but listened to. The finale is a curious piece but all the more intriguing because of it. It has a strong theme and contrasts which Katin brings out with effortless clarity.

The Barcarolle, Op 60 is a sunny piece of great charm perhaps recalling Venice. It reminds me of Mendelssohn who, sadly, still remains the most abandoned of the 'romantics' and yet whose music has a craftsmanship and fecundity that is unequalled. This Barcarolle is an extended piece and, in this committed performance, is never trite or a mere fancy.

The Three Mazurkas are a varied group each played with a precision that is never cold and with detail that lifts these pieces out of any possible bottom drawer of banality. The Ballade No 4 may not contain Chopin's best music but the piece is beautifully and lovingly structured by Peter Katin.

The stunning revelation on this disc is the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op 61 which is hardly one of Chopin's most popular works. In fact, it has its critics and yet it is a fascinating piece, full of shifting contrasts. Here is an example of the 'other' Chopin, the profound and mysterious Chopin. Here the 'ugly duckling' of this composer's oeuvre is given a makeover and treated with the respect it deserves. The unsurpassed performance is wonderfully thought-provoking and has a profundity which belies the usual accolade that Chopin's music is, at best, superficial. This is a work worthy of study.

Katin's performances are, as usual, exemplary as to technique, skill, interpretation, detail and pristine clarity.

Listening to this disc makes me realise not just how well Katin plays Chopin, setting standards that will hardly be exceeded, but it also reveals how badly Chopin is played by other famous names. Chopin needs revaluation; he is not just a composer of frills and trifles as this compelling disc testifies.


David Wright




David Wright

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