Saturday, July 1, 2017

Pianist Amir Katz' recently issued disc of Chopin's Opus 10 and Opus 25 Etudes

Photo: Stéphane de Bourgies
Pianist Amir Katz’ recent recording “Frédéric Chopin ETUDES” includes the twelve opus 10 Etudes and the same number of pieces making up opus 25. The Etudes were written over some eight years. Three more Etudes (not recorded on this CD) followed in 1839. With the étude defined as a piece designed to aid a student in developing technical ability, those of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) take for granted the pianist’s existing technical mastery. And, even more importantly, unlike the repetitive études of Czerny and Hanon that many of us were coerced into playing as young piano students, Chopin’s études, beyond their huge technical demands, form a kaleidoscope of dazzling tone poems - works concise in length but of immense effect. Having heard Chopin himself performing several of them, Robert Schumann proclaimed Chopin a “genius”, whimsically adding that “quite à la Chopin did he play them!” Constituting a new art form, the Romantic étude was taken up in a big way by Liszt, whose passionate études have of late been a focus of Katz, recently performed widely by him.


Chopin dedicated the opus 10 Etudes to Liszt, both composers being pivotal figures in the history of piano technique. Opus 10 was published in 1833. The composer was 23! One can go into great detail enumerating the myriad of new challenges met by the pianist in these pieces - the technique required for the playing of consecutive tenths of the first étude, the weaker fingers gently spelling out the seamless flow of chromatics of the A-minor etude (No.2), the running figures moving from hand to hand in the chromatically inflected molto perpetuo of No.4, the new hand position required for the “black key” étude (No.5) or Chopin’s concept of playing “cantabile” consecutive octaves (No.10). Katz’ playing, however, takes the listener into the gestures, the melodic- and harmonic magic and the emotional content of each small vignette - the proud, exhilarating wake-up call of No.1, the wistful gossamer-lightness of No.2 and in No.6,  splendidly and empathically sculpting Chopin’s melancholic melody, with each of its  notes strategically placed above the delicately bubbling left hand figure. Also, Katz’ spontaneity and flawless forays into the silken runs of No.8 and the overwhelming sense of wonder and light he creates in No.11, as he examines the new sensation of each tonality. His presentation of the lush fragility and  underlying sadness of No.9, with its faintly falling seconds of longing a reminder of Chopin’s later depression, was heart-rending.


The Opus 25 Etudes, published 1837 when Chopin was 27, were dedicated to Franz Liszt's mistress, Madame the Countess Marie d'Agoult, the reasons for which remain a matter of speculation. The Opus 25 Etudes take Chopin’s writing to a further degree of virtuosic bravura and synthesis, marking the next phase in the composer’s development as a virtuoso pianist and composer, with his use of a more innovative and integrated use of chromatics, color and texture, not to mention the unprecedented and consummate opulence of this collection. Katz take his cue from the sheer beauty of each  piece - the featherweight agility and longing of No.1, the restless, gracious playfulness of No.4 as its melody spells itself out on the back-beat, the whimsical, and decidedly dissonant effect of the stacking up of grace notes making up the fabric of No.5, its cantabile middle section offering temporary relief, the poetry and fantasy woven into No.6 by way of its cascading consecutive thirds and the dainty, iridescent  grace of No.9, referred to by some (not by Chopin) as “The Butterfly”. One notices how Katz deals with the gentle, concluding chords of several of the miniatures, taking that extra moment to place them thoughtfully, philosophically, with reverence. No.3 is buoyant, richly orchestrated and energizing; Katz does not let on as to its technical complexities, as he delights and entertains with its capricious, lightly galloping course. In No.7, led into by a single melodic line of warning, the artist gives poignant and personal expression to its sombre longing, its sad soulfulness, then to free it to spiral into a fuller soundscape. The stormy scene of No.10, with its uncompromising, chromatic octaves, receives a (physically and emotionally) powerful reading, its central lyrical section dispelling all the tumultuous surges of sound, if only temporarily. No less power and passion color infuse the  grand, noble and intense puissance of No.11, “Winter Wind” (not Chopin’s title). Deemed by Chopin as “treacherous and dangerous for the uninitiated”, Katz is secure as he balances the dashing treble figurations articulately and with poise above Chopin’s grandiose left hand chordal melody. The series ends with Chopin’s study in pianistic resonance, as No.12’s parallel arpeggios ascend and descend the keyboard and its chorale melody suggest the rigorous supremacy of the large forces of nature. Katz presents it convincingly; he does not, however, neglect its occasional tender and intensely human asides.
Born in Israel in 1973, Amir Katz, today residing in Europe, performs worldwide as soloist, chamber musician and recitalist. He made his Wigmore Hall debut in 2014. Since 2010, he has been accompanist to tenor Pavol Breslik. Of late, Katz has been focusing on cantabile works of Romantic piano repertoire. His CD of Chopin’s Etudes was recorded in April 2015 in Berlin for the ORFEO label. The disc’s sound quality is true and natural. Light of touch, Katz’ playing bristles with subtlety, clarity, assurance and technical perfection. As he enters the emotional sound world of Frédéric Chopin, he approaches its joy and sadness with clean brush strokes, sincerity and wonder.


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