BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight”; BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major – Mindru Katz, p./ Jerusalem Philharmonic Orch./ Mandi Rodan – Cembal d’amour

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14 in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”; BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 – Mindru Katz, p./ Jerusalem Philharmonic Orch./ Mandi Rodan – Cembal d’amour CD 180, 64:09 (8/19/15) [www.cembaldamour.com] ****:

Pianist and record producer Mordecai Shehori proffers more in the art of his own teacher and mentor Mindru Katz (1925-1978), here in live recital (16 June 1971) and in concert (3 October 1967). In his brief note to me, Shehori advised me to “wear my seat belt.”  Certainly, not for the first two movements of the ubiquitous Sonata quasi una fantasia by Beethoven, whose opening movement establishes a lyric pulse and nuanced pedal that quite lull us with what Beethoven may have construed as “experiments” in keyboard color. Nor the Allegretto movement, which Katz plays in a salon manner, somewhat reminiscent of a gavotte, but broadly articulate and more parlando than declamatory.  Rather, we might buckle up after only a few notes of the propulsive Presto, which unleashes a ferocious series of volcanic gestures that the keyboard can barely maintain. While the tempo urgently approaches prestissimo, Katz controls his landings with perfect aplomb, establishing the rhythmic periods with an unfailing sense of musical architecture.  The three-hand effects as Katz slows down for yet another manic version of the ritornello provide a marvelous palette for the Katz display of intelligent bravura.  The last pages seem to look forward to the Appassionata, so ripe and theatrically dramatic as they progress to a definitive close.

Fellow pianist Claudio Arrau often claimed that the Brahms style, particularly that of the B-flat Concerto, demanded a special colossal size and technical approach to the keyboard. Maybe actress Katherine Hepburn better expressed the notion when she stated, “I don’t know what ‘star quality’ is, but whatever it is, I’ve got it.” Mindru Katz and conductor Rodan go after the 1883 “concerto with a wisp of a scherzo” with a grand sense of monumentality. Katz, besides executing the huge-spanned chords, adds a degree of repose even in the midst of pageantry that unfolds in the first movement, Andante non troppo. Rodan allows his Jerusalem ensemble to bask in the outdoor French horn pastoral harmonies without the mania that drives the esteemed Horowitz/Toscanini rendition of the 1940s. When the thunder and lightning do erupt, the earth shakes with the same force Beethoven can elicit. The bridge passages provide some wonderful interchange – one, from E-flat Major to F Minor – especially in the staccato eighth notes and the two-bar canon in the orchestra, just prior to the recapitulation.

The D Minor Scherzo opens with a sixteen-measure piano statement of an idea we find in the D Major Serenade, Op. 11. Like movement one, this music enjoys a highly syncopated motion, which Katz and Rodan urge with dark romantic passion. A degree of mystery permeates the harmonic transitions into e minor and c-sharp minor, then suddenly, the velocity simply becomes overwhelming and Rodan, too, takes Promethean fire and commands the heavens to open up. The movement vacillates into F Major and d minor, between Heaven and Hell. Katz’s bass chords reveal a genuine abyss even as the strings attempt to lift us something like salvation.

The solo cello announces an anodyne to the storms and stresses of existence with the ensuing Andante, which forms the basis of the song Immer leiser wird mien Schlummer, Op. 105, No. 2 (1886). Katz’s entry moves through ranges of octaves, from soprano to tenor, with an incandescent allure. The tutti invokes Katz’s potent trill and massive triplet chords. The melody that appears in the new key of F-sharp Major has its basis in another song, Todessehnen, Op. 86, No. 6. “In the midst of life we are in death.” As much as the tiger emerged in the course of this movement, the music concludes with the lamb. The rondo-sonata finale, Allegretto grazioso, gravitates between B-flat Major and E-flat Major, a maneuver some scholars attribute to the influence of Beethoven’s G Major Concerto. The melodic contour hints at the composer’s early fascination with Hungarian gypsy music. When Katz cuts loose in the feverish toccata elements – b minor moving to f-sharp minor – the effect becomes dazzling in the most dramatic fashion.

Otherwise, a thoroughly resonant gemutlichkeit operates here, a congenial sense of total mastery in all principals.  The martial coda takes up the triplets that dominate the texture – including sixteenth note flourishes from Katz – and three tonic chords that sweep you, me, and the Jerusalem audience out of our respective seat belts.

—Gary Lemco

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