2 February 2012

Fanfare Magazine, Review by Michael Ullman

Chopin: Ballades and impromptus

Having made successful recordings of the Chopin nocturnes and of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Israeli pianist Amir Katz here turns again to Chopin with these often tender, sometimes explosive recordings of the ballades and impromptus. A student of two admirable pianists, Leon Fleisher and Murray Perahia, and the winner of four major international competitions, he is of course an impressive performer, with brilliant technical skills. He also seemingly has the temperament, as does his teacher Perahia, to make these often contradictory works coherent, powerful, and touching.

Musicologists note that the ballade is a form, or perhaps concept, invented by Chopin; it is in his hands a kind of sublimely rarified program music. Most of us would never guess, however, that the First Ballade had something to do with Polish nationalism, except that all of Chopin seems to have something to do with that sad subject. It begins boldly, then in Katz’s hands seems to recede. As the text requires, he states the initial theme quietly, soberly, after a significant pause. These opening bars reveal much of Katz’s approach, his rather classical restraint and remarkable ability to maintain tension while playing softly, or perhaps intently. The dramatic sections that follow are made even more effective by the natural ebb and flow of his playing. The gentle expositions of the melody here don’t seem to be interrupting the drama, as they can seem to do. Rather we are presented with a natural succession of moods, ending with a buoyant, almost triumphant restatement that Katz makes glisten. The other ballades show the same technical mastery and a similarly restrained approach.

Katz’s impromptus are more whimsical; so is the form. Taking seriously the marking quasi presto, for instance, he makes a kind of fairy dance of the First. But technical flash never outweighs the sentiment; the Second is taken at a slower tempo than often heard. No matter. Katz is a superior Chopin player, never eccentric and yet with his own ideas.

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