Katie Mahan’s Uneven Beethoven

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

Katie Mahan’s sharply characterized performances of Debussy’s Preludes Book II on her own KM label impressed me as much as her complete Leonard Bernstein piano music survey on Deutsche Grammophon. Her first Steinway & Sons CD offered a sensitive if sometimes soft-grained Gershwin program. She follows that one up with an all-Beethoven release.

In the Op. 126 Bagatelles, Mahan adheres to No. 1’s Andante con moto directive, minus con moto. Her pianism is suave to the point of bland when compared alongside Martino Tirimo’s variety of articulation and Yevgeny Sudbin’s far more flexible and imaginative phrasing. No issues concern Mahan’s tempo for No. 2, yet she lacks Gabriele Balducci’s wide dynamic contrasts and nervous energy. Mahan judiciously voices No. 3’s part writing, although she sometimes overpedals. Her stout and square No. 4 transpires at less than a true Presto; it’s an uphill jog next to Sviatoslav Richter’s mad dash. Mahan saves her most engaging work for the final two Bagatelles, playing up the quirky phrasing of No. 6’s central A-flat pedal-point episode.

Mahan’s static Op. 109 sonata first movement contrasts to her alternating between surging fury and anguished lyricism in the Prestissimo. The third movement varies between super slow (the theme and its reiteration at the end), superficial (Variation III’s rapid passagework), and otherworldly (the long chains of trills).

Mahan’s attention to rhythmic exactitude in the Appassionata outer movements yields rigid, sectionalized results that run counter to the music’s eruptive fluidity and volatile dynamism. That’s emphatically not the case concerning Konstantin Scherbakov’s Steinway & Sons recording, released around the same time as Mahan’s. As you’ve probably gathered, Mahan’s Beethoven faces superior competition on all fronts. If you’re curious about this pianist, stick with her Bernstein cycle and Debussy Preludes Book II.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Appassionata
Reference Recording: Op. 126: Tirimo (Hänssler), Op. 109: Fischer (Warner Classics); Levit (Sony), Op. 57: Rudolf Serkin (Sony); Rubinstein (RCA)

    Bagatelles Op. 126; Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)
  • Katie Mahan (piano)

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