Katz’s complete Chopin Nocturnes proves a triumph at Miami Piano Festival

By Lawrence Budmen

Amir Katz performed the complete Chopin Nocturnes Saturday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

An evening of music by Frederic Chopin and the South Florida debut of Israeli pianist Amir Katz drew a sizable audience Saturday night to the Colony Theater in Miami Beach.

It’s a rare experience to hear a pianist perform all twenty-one of the Polish master’s nocturnes in one evening.  (Katz has recently recorded the complete cycle for Oehms Classics.) Such a project has inevitable pitfalls. Elements of monotony and lack of musical variety can plague such a complete traversal of pieces often played as encores at the conclusion of a concert. However, Katz’s recital for the Miami International Piano Festival’s Discovery Series was a triumph of refined artistry and musical insight.

The competition-winning pianist counts Leon Fleisher, Karl Ulrich Schnabel and Murray Perahia among his teachers. Katz’s keyboard technique is so solid and expressive that it never calls attention to itself. The melodic lines in the right hand were firmly placed while the left hand’s underpinning rhythm was carefully gauged without undue emphasis. He was alive to Chopin’s volatile changes of mood and pulse. Under Katz’s fingers, sudden explosive outbursts proved anything but nocturnal. He explored the distinctive character of each piece, producing a cycle of striking variety.

Katz’s liberal use of rubato harked back to an earlier generation of Chopin interpreters. Opening with a dreamy, cerebral reading of Op.9, No.1 in B-flat minor, Katz’s performance was marked by consistently singing tone and exquisite lightness of touch. He brought remarkable freedom to the familiar Op. 9, No.2  E-flat Major Nocturne, the varied gradations of tempo always flowing in a lyrical arc. The sheer beauty and sensitivity of an arching melodic line set the two posthumously published nocturnes apart, performed as a restrained conclusion to the concert.

Katz viewed the nocturnes as more than merely pretty salon pieces. The G minor vignette sang in elegiac tones without bathos and the conclusion of the E-flat Major, Op.55, No.2 was chilling. At unusually rapid speed, several of the pieces erupted with tempestuous power and energy. Chopin’s intense middle sections and dramatic climaxes were highly charged. The grandeur of Liszt was not far away; yet Katz vividly displayed the pianistic bel canto that is the essence of so much of the composer’s output.

Even in these mood pieces, Polish dance rhythms can often be discerned. Katz found the balletic strains in several works, the rhythm sudden taking center stage. The lightness of a barcarolle and touch of a poet rang in the most songful manner even when tragedy lurked beneath the surface(as in the E minor, Op.72, No.1) Indeed Katz seemed to conceive the entire set as a grand drama, a journey through joy, beauty and despair. No two nocturnes emerged alike, the subtle nuances and wide dynamic spectrum adding color and emotion across the entire set.

Katz exhibited an impressive sense of artistic daring, unafraid to take the music in different directions than conventional artistic norms. Much of the cycle emerged freshly minted and exhilarating, a remarkable artistic achievement.

Katz wisely declined to play an encore despite the standing, cheering ovation. After so audacious a program, any additional offering would have been anticlimactic.

The Miami International Piano Festival concludes 8 p.m. Sunday with a performance by violinist Gilles Apap and the Transylvania Boys at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. 800-745-3000, www.miamipianofest.com.


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Sun May 22, 2011
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