BRAHMS: 7 Fantasien, Op. 116; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24 – Peter Katin, piano – Divine Art DDV24157, 78:48 [www.divine-art.co.uk] ****:
Peter Katin (b. 1930) first became known to me when I noticed who provided the musical score to the 1962 film The L-Shaped Room, with Leslie Caron and Brock Peters, with the passionate rumblings of the Brahms D Minor Concerto first movement as background. Katin inscribed these Brahms solo piano pieces 21-24 May 1990 at the Salen Church Hall, Ski, Norway, and they appeared originally on the Olympia label (OCD263).
Tempestuous energy marks the opening D Minor Capriccio from Op. 116, followed by the restless, curtailed, drooping phrases of the A Minor Intermezzo. The G Minor Capriccio opens with hectic fury, but its middle section evolves a series of thickly chordal phrases into a rising moment of ennobled triumph. The first of the E Major Intermezzi proceeds in leisurely, small phrases in the manner of an intimate nocturne. The E Minor presages the world of Schoenberg, comprised of brittle, antiphonal phrases in small measures and proceeding by chromatic half steps. The second E Major Intermezzo by Katin sounds like Debussy plainchant at first, but relents on the modal progressions enough to “lapse” into the Brahms melancholy stoicism whose middle section gains fluidity and pearls in the form of triplet figures. The final D Minor Capriccio flings gusts and tempests at us that barely subside when the frenzy picks up once more, the strokes doubly redoubling the pathos.
The 1891 Intermezzi, Op. 117 enjoy a long history of stellar interpretation. Katin urges the tender simplicity of the No. 1 in B-flat Major lullaby, a setting of a Scottish folk tune that soon modulates into the Brahms conceit of lonely bachelor’s music. The B-flat Minor evokes from the understated Katin his rainy-day arpeggios that move in figures akin to Debussy’s Arabesques. The C-sharp Minor invokes the dark post-War sensibility of Kurt Weill, and Katin does not soften its angular, often icy sensibilities. Katin does rock the waves of the A Major middle section effectively, a bit of solace in an otherwise sardonic universe. Katin brings both emotional and digital girth to the 1879 Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, supposed flights of free fantasy that conform to sonata-form! Katin imparts a stentorian mass on the B Minor which some auditors may find heavy. But the middle section relents and conveys a wistful nostalgia quite beguiling. The last pages, fierce and gripping, belie the Brahms bondage to classical form and wring the heart. The G Minor enjoys potent resonance under Katin, but his tempo rushes, as is too often the wont of pianists in this piece. The martial aspects of the figures appeal to Katin, who maintains a ferocious grip on the dark progressions that wend their way under the repeated figures above.
The 1861 Variations on a Theme of Handel have charmed this commentator ever since he owned the Eugene Istomin rendition on CBS LP (ML 5287). Katin’s set remains eminently sober, unmannered, and delightful buoyant. The unity of affect Brahms achieves in the twenty-five variations defines musical consistency-in-variety, with only the twenty-first’s modulating from B-flat Major to its relative G Minor. That Katin can project muscle as well as poetry have their proof in Variations Four and Five, Fifteen, and of course, much later in consistently magical XXII, the alla musette. The Hungarian flavor of some of the variants, their heroic or skittish gestures, the delicious siciliani, all fall gingerly and fluently under Katin’s deft hands, the innate brio of the reading no less compelling in the extended moments of learned counterpoint Brahms tosses our way in honor of his model Handel. The ascending motion of the last three variants proves monumental, culminating in the four-voice fugue whose own potent momentum Katin relishes as a source for the transcendent merger of mind and liberated spirit.
Mid-century performances, Eduard Erdmann, piano