Of late, Amir Katz has focused much on Romantic repertoire in both recitals and recordings. The Tel Aviv recital brought together works of J.S.Bach and Chopin. Strange bedfellows? Well, no, surprisingly not. Katz has managed to juxtapose works of the two composers in a masterful and relevant fashion. The concert opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s English Suite No.3 in g minor BWV 808. The six English Suites (unsuitably named English for reasons not clear till today) are his earliest keyboard suites, now thought to have been composed around 1715 during Bach’s employ at the Weimar court. Katz opened with a forthright reading of the Prelude, his approach to the hearty chordal writing of the smaller and larger “instrumental groups” of its concerto grosso-type form including much voice play. As to the dances that follow, Katz goes straight to the heart of the music, presenting the character of each dance together with the beauty and intimacy of the music, from the personal utterance of the Allemande, to the daring Sarabande with its florid, ornamented repeats, from the playful, unabashedly semplice Gavotte, to the energy Katz releases in his clear analysis and precise playing of the complex counterpoint of the Gigue Bach composed in the form of a three-part fugue. In his performance of English Suite No.3, Katz played off the elegance of French court dances with Bach’s German intellect. With some ornaments emerging a little heavy at times, his playing presented fine detail and articulate melodic lines.
This was followed by the artist’s performance of Frédéric Chopin’s 12 Etudes opus 10. Making for a smooth connection, could one perhaps surmise that Etude no.1 was inspired by Prelude no.1 of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in form, harmonically and in the arpeggiation woven throughout? We are reminded that Chopin’s Opus 10 marks the beginning of the modern school of piano playing, with each study clearly focusing on a specific technical aspect and addressing the new tonal potential of the piano. Amir Katz, however, sees the work’s technical originality and challenges as a means to presenting the intellectual and emotional dimensions of these superb pieces (the first work to display Chopin’s fully formed genius) and of highlighting the contrasts between them. Katz does this via a technique that is crystal clear and eloquent touch. His playing of Etude no.6, for example, offered a mysterious element, its richly chromatic middle voice subtle, its melodic lines legato and personal. I especially enjoyed Etude no.9 with its minor “narrative”, its drama and rapid modulations and fast changing dynamics, with the pianist divulging a second subdued melodic line hidden among the left hand arpeggios. Katz presents his audience with the composer’s score and intentions, staying well clear of the over-pedalled and ego-centred performances of Chopin so often heard in concert halls in the name of “Romantic music”.
Following the intermission, Amir Katz took the listener back to Bach, this time playing the Prelude in e-flat minor and its enharmonic partner, the Fugue in d-sharp minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The Prelude has a spontaneous, improvised character, Bach having written in the key of e-flat minor in only one other instance (Minuet no.2 of the E-flat major Harpsichord Suite), its minor orientation and slow harmonic development giving the piece a unique, floating, star-struck feel. Katz allowed each motif and gesture to dictate the manner of its presentation. He carried the mysterious ethos and perhaps Bach’s divine inspiration into the large d-sharp minor Fugue, showing the listener through the many expositions, augmentation and varied use of stretto with humility.
Chopin’s second set of Etudes – opus 25 – appeared in 1837, with a dedication to Countess Marie d’Agoult (Liszt’s mistress). Of these pieces, British pianist and Chopin and Liszt authority Robert Collet wrote that the Opus 25 Etudes are “the most universal of his works”, that they “transcend barriers of time and nationality…” Katz fashioned an almost seamless and totally acceptable transition from the Bach Fugue into the first Etude, the “Aeolian Harp”, of which Clara Schumann had said that it “embodied the playing of Chopin himself.” Light, clean and delicate, his playing spelled out the piece’s evocative melody above a maze of pastel filigree lines. Through his own insight and superb technique, Katz proceeded to bring to life the fusion of Chopin’s musical imagination and writing of opulence unparalleled in the composer’s oeuvre. He added a touch of humor to the fast repetitive rhythms and strong accents of Etude no.3 (F major) and whimsy to no.5’s melodies sweeping up and down the keyboard. And how very poetic Etude no.6 sounded, with its play of chromatics manipulated in 3rds! Katz took the audience through the meditative course of No.7 with its sumptuous left hand melody, his playing profound and meaningful. In the whole of the piano repertoire, there are few works as difficult (punishing!) in technical demands as in the outer sections of Etude no.10 (b minor), with its stormy, triplet-driven intensity, relieved only temporarily by its lyrical middle section, and how dramatically satisfying this was to the listener! Following it was “The Winter Wind” (no.11), a true storm scene, whether a descriptive or emotional storm, leading into Amir Katz’s inspiring and soul-searching recreating of the ebullient canvas of the final Etude - no.12 (c minor), the “Ocean” Etude, a piece that includes many elements of other Opus 25 etudes, and, of course, a 4-voiced contrapuntal line, its harmony and melody a reminder of Chopin’s love of and familiarity with Bach’s music. So had we come the full circle? It seems we had.
This was indeed a memorable evening.