Mozart: The Complete Piano Sonatas

Peter Katin (Altara 5CDs ALT1026(5))

25 July 2008 3 stars

Mozart Piano Sonatas: Peter KatinBritish pianist Peter Katin has amassed an extensive discography over an extraordinary sixty-year career, ranging from Scarlatti to William Mathias. Here, his complete survey of the Mozart Piano Sonata's – recorded in Norway nearly twenty years ago – makes its return to the catalogue on the Altara label, having previously been available on Olympia (OCD230-4 individually; box set OCD5003).

I'm not sure if Katin possesses a particular fondness for F major, but all three sonatas in that key are superlative. K.280 is notable for its wonderfully atmospheric Adagio, full of quasi-Schubertian chromatics and chord progressions. The slow movement of K.332 also boasts a delicate cantabile,during which time seems to stand still (Katin adopts the verbose recapitulation of the first edition, delivering the endless embellishments in an exquisitely playful manner). There are also thrilling exchanges in the opening Allegro and an equally gripping stream of perpetual semiquavers in the finale's development section. The majestic counterpoint in the first movement of K.533/494 is performed persuasively, with the recapitulation ushered in most seductively. Katin proves an excellent guide through the unexpected harmonic pathways of the central Andante before finishing with a meditative rendering of the Rondo (which was written two years before the opening movements).

Naturally, however, this box set is not exactly a question of 'F-major-or-bust'. Other highlights include the brooding Sonata in C minor, K.457 (played here with the Fantasie, K.475 as an introduction), with its menacingly Beethovenian qualities; the A-major Sonata, K.331, in which the nostalgia of the opening variations and the panache of the 'Turkish Rondo' third movement make a colourful contrast; and the two early sonatas – in B-flat major, K.281 and in G major, K.283 – that begin the final disc. Furthermore, throughout this collection one realises that Katin is most in his element in Mozart's slow movements – a fabulous asset, considering that these are, at least temporally, the most substantial episodes in all but four of the sonatas. His knack for knowing when to adopt operatic levels of expression (as in the Andante amoroso in K.281) and when to hold back (as in K.283's Andante) is highly astute, providing many absorbing moments of respite.

Other readings are not quite as successful. The first movement of the vigorous Sonata in A minor, K.310 has some lovely touches, but the dotted rhythms that ought to drive the music forward in the development section are loosely played and thus lack gravity. The outer movements of the C-major Sonata, K.309 also fail to live up to their potential, the closing Rondeau in particular lacking the charm and vitality of which it is capable. Occasionally, Katin's piano dynamic leaves something to be desired, failing to offer a great enough contrast with louder passages (as in the first movements of K.284 and K.311).

Inevitably, whilst listening to these sonatas various patterns and tendencies of the performer emerge. Katin possesses a wonderful ear for Mozart's bass lines, bringing even some of the most seemingly-innocuous Alberti-bass passages to life. He is also a strong proponent of allowing his left hand to anticipate the beat, an expressive tool loved by some and loathed by others. Though beautifully weighted at times, Katin's rather liberal employment of this technique becomes a tad ostentatious and on one or two occasions causes momentary rhythmic confusion. Trills, turns and other decorations in the outer movements often err on the side of sheer brilliance as opposed to lyricism. Whilst the former is quite stirring at times, a gentler, more sympathetic approach would have been appreciated on several occasions.

In his eloquent booklet notes, Katin justifies the decision to record these works on a modern piano by citing its 'tonally sustaining powers'. Yet it sometimes sounds like he is forcing the issue, producing a rather percussive tone (most noticeably in the upper registers). This tends to occur in faster music (the outer movements of K.279 and K.330 spring to mind) as well as on repeated notes that receive crescendo phrasing. This becomes less of an issue the further one positions oneself from the speakers, and is perhaps at least partially attributable to having the microphones placed close to the piano in what is otherwise an inviting and unpretentious acoustic.

The presentation of this set is both simple and practical, with the five CDs conveniently housed in a standard double-decker case. Frustratingly, the abridged listing on the back of the box shows each disc's sonatas in chronological order, as opposed to the order in which they are heard. Incidentally, however, Katin's wish for each disc in the set to be conceived as individual recitals is a success, with early, middle and late works combined to form balanced 'programmes'. Overall, this is a very agreeable anthology with plenty to offer, and is worthy of consideration.

By William Norris