> Julius Katchen, piano: Beethoven, Mozart etc... [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Julius KATCHEN, piano
Volume 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No 1
Piano Concerto No 2
Rondo in B Flat Major
Piano Concerto No 3
Piano Concerto No 5
Piero Gamba
DECCA 460 822-2 [2 CDs 149’59]

Volume 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No 5
Choral Fantasia
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concerto No 13 K415
Piano Concerto No 20 K466
Piano Concerto No 25 K503
Piano Sonata in A Major K331
LSO conducted by Piero Gamba (Beethoven)
New Symphony Orchestra of London conducted by Peter Maag (K415)
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Karl Munchinger (K466, K503)
DECCA 460 825-2 [2 CDs 152’54]

Volume 3
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No 1
Piano Concerto No 2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Concerto
Fantasie in C Major
LSO conducted by Pierre Monteux (Brahms No 1)
LSO conducted by Janos Ferencsik (Brahms No 2)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Istvan Kertesz (Schumann)
DECCA 460 828-2 [2 CDs 157’24]

Volume 4
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Piano Concerto No 1
Piano Concerto No 2
Mephisto waltz
Hungarian Rhapsody No 12
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Piano Concerto
Modest MUSSOURGSKY (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)

LPO conducted by Ataulfo Argenta (Liszt Concertos)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Istvan Kertesz (Grieg)
DECCA 460 831-2 [2 CDs 134’41]

Volume 5
Pyotr I TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No 1
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Piano Concerto No 3
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Hungarian Fantasie
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto No 2
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Erno DOHNANYI (1877-1960)

Variations on a Nursery Theme
LSO conducted by Piero Gamba (Tchaikovsky, Liszt)
LSO conducted by Istvan Kertesz (Prokofiev)
LSO conducted by Georg Solti (Rachmaninov No 2)
LPO conducted by Adrian Boult (Rachmaninov Rhapsody and Dohnányi)
DECCA 460 834-2 [2 CDs 152’22]

Volume 6
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

Piano Concerto in F
Rhapsody in Blue
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Piano Concerto in G
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Piano Concerto No 3
Mantovani and his Orchestra (Piano Concerto in F)
LSO conducted by Istvan Kertesz (Ravel, Rhapsody in Blue, Bartok)
LSO conducted by Benjamin Britten (Britten)
DECCA 460 837-2 [2 CDs135’10]

Volume 7
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata Op 111
Piano Sonata op 57 Appassionata
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli Op 120
Six Bagatelles Op 126
Polonaise Op 89
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Sonata in C Major K545
Piano Sonata in B Flat Major K333/315c
DECCA 466 714-2 [2 CDs 142’39]
Volume 8
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Fantasie in C Major Fantasie
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Toccata in C
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Clair de lune
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)

Ritual Fire Dance
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Piano Sonata No 2 Op 35
Piano Sonata No 3 Op 58
Fantasie-Polonaise Op 66
Polonaise Op 53
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Rondo Capriccioso
On Wings of Song Arr Liszt
J S BACH (1685-1750)

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring Arr Hess
DECCA 466 717-2 [2 CDs 145’34]
All recordings Volumes 1-8 made between 1955-69

Before his wretchedly early death Katchen had committed a decisive part of his repertoire to disc. This 8 double CD set – more to come – consists of a substantial part of that legacy, much of it grouped together for the first time and in which Concerto performances predominate. Volumes 7 and 8 are entirely given over to solo literature but it makes an appearance elsewhere; Volume 3 for example gives us the Schumann Fantasie whilst Volume 4 devotes one CD to Mussoursgky, Liszt and Balakirev, all powerhouse virtuoso literature. Katchen possessed a magnificent technique able to deal with almost all demands placed upon it – his Islamey is one blistering case in point – but other more individually subtle qualities infused his playing at every stage of development – he signed a recording contract with Decca before he was twenty.

Lucky the music lover who comes to Katchen through these discs. There is much to savour. His runs in Beethoven’s First Concerto are agile without ostentation; no paraded virtuosity impedes the music’s flow though his cadenza sprinkles a number of wide dynamics as it goes. Limpidity and a kind of stasis descends on the slow movement from 5’10 – this was something of a Katchen specialty, suspension of time at a still breathing tempo – with agile clarity in the left hand. A grandly affirmatory finale establishes his Beethovenian credentials, corroborated by the Second Concerto where his balanced and weighty playing is aided immeasurably by Piero Gamba – a much-undervalued conductor – shaping and moulding the orchestral exposition like a master. Katchen responds in kind, with affectionate simplicity, though very occasionally splintering the line. A marvellously tactful diminuendo ends the slow movement. The finale is buoyant, witty, clear, warm and playful. The B Flat rondo is shapely and sharply accented and meltingly phrased. Light and shade in matters of dynamics elucidate the opening of the Third Concerto; the close of the movement has nothing quite as forceful as the classic Bishop/Davis but there is some fine inward and reflective musing in the slow movement especially from 7’00 onwards; Katchen’s momentum is accompanied by a subtle "delay", a delicacy of touch and astute use of the pedal. A driving finale is, again, not quite in the top echelon performances. The Emperor has grandeur but a strange amount of rhythmic retardation in the first movement and some daringly imposed diminuendos (try from 14’00 on). Plenty of stentorian grandeur but a commensurate amount of carefully controlled orchestral values too from Gamba. The slow movement wasn’t much to my taste; rather mannered rubato and inflections from Katchen and as with so many pianists the transition to the finale seemed somewhat sticky – listen to Kempff’s stereo recording with Leitner to hear it should be done. But he is commanding and abrasive here, showering a variety of attack, though straying rather too close to the brash and overaggressive for me. Some more rhythmic displacements again rather mar the performance. His Fourth Concerto is a deeply human affair. Passagework is clear, so are some moments of perhaps overemphatic and over theatrical phrasing. He plumbs no huge depths in the slow movement but is attractive on his own terms. The finale is animated by more excellent Gamba – vigorous and assertive trumpets punch out the homeward road. The Mozart Concerto performance with Peter Maag is vitiated somewhat by rather desiccated sound quality – especially in the case of string tuttis. But there is much propulsive playing here and perhaps in Katchen’s case rather too much propulsion because he anticipates passagework in a way characteristic of him; he could be guilty of rushing ahead of the beat and certainly does so here. I also find a certain reluctance to let the music properly "speak" that limits enjoyment. Maag catches the air of strange aloofness in some of the string passages in the finale and brings some buoyant musicianship to bear. I find Katchen on better form with Munchinger. The D Minor is bouncy, the conductor eloquently flowing in the slow movement and Katchen’s dynamic variance of real pedigree. A certain stolidity can afflict the C Major Concerto but Katchen’s sense of dynamic line is undeviating and ever alert to the gravity of the woodwinds’ theatrical calls in the finale. The A Major Sonata is played with wit and strength, with no crushing or overweening polish and absolutely no attempt to show off.

Volume 3 is devoted to Brahms and Schumann. It begins in undisguised magnificence with Katchen and Pierre Monteux in Brahms’s First Concerto, one of the great performances of the work. It opens in tempestuous fashion, implacable but soon yielding, Monteux, who had played in a Quartet for Brahms, bringing out a myriad of subtle orchestral details. Listen to the way, for example, he shapes the voicings of the lower strings in the first movement and those almost quixotically beautiful violins. There is throughout a fascinating sense of unease and insecurity – listen from 11’30 until the reassertions and sureties of 12’15. Katchen is serious and sensitive throughout Monteux’s masterly exhibition of conducting; fire and power are his birthright as is the interior meaning of a movement. The slow movement’s humanity rises to a peak in Monteux’s control of the wind chorale and the finale’s fugal episode, trumpet cries, orchestral pizzicato are all swept up by the conductor in galvanic and triumphant brilliance; so too in a sense is Katchen. Excellent though he is, he can’t help but be overshadowed by the veteran alchemist on the rostrum. The Second Concerto is a let down. I recently reviewed it on its appearance in the Decca Eloquence series (458 171-2) where it was coupled with an on-off performance of the Brahms Paganini Variations. Briefly it seems to me that Katchen is over nonchalant, rather too indulgent and predictable (First Movement; 12’30). In the second movement I felt Katchen’s left hand was a subversive element in his lyrical passages and the rubato too tame. There is also the strange matter of Katchen and Ferencsik never quite getting right the rhythm of the finale. The Schumann Fantasie has moments of splintered phrasing and some slightly brittle playing. Another under sung conductor, Argenta, is prominent in Volume 4. He inspires some blistering orchestral playing – from the LPO this time – in the First Liszt. Katchen is wispy and quicksilver when needs be – the lightness and graded panache of his trill in the second movement is memorable, whereas the sheer adrenalin and panache of his playing in the finale is a joy to hear. Stoical but sensitive in the A Major concerto he can also show his brittle mettle in the finale. The Grieg is a decent performance. The strings of the Israel Philharmonic are surprisingly adrift at a few conspicuous points, Katchen races ahead once more, there’s also quite a lot of heavily insistent playing by him in the finale – blistering maybe but not really exciting or convincing. The second disc in this volume is given over to more virtuoso material. I didn’t find the Mussoursgky comprehensively successful. There’s much admirable playing per se but a sense of complete mastery is missing, with playing that is either just too fractious or just too emphatic. Throughout the rubato is a little too applied. There is also a conclusion that simply misses the mark – complete with a bad edit (2’29) that doesn’t much help and the textual tinkering at the end unconvincing. This is not a criticism that can be easily levelled at the Liszt and Islamey – some truly magnificent pianism here.

Gamba returns to join Katchen for Tchaikovsky One. It opens at quite a slow basic pulse, well moulded by the conductor but soon picks up speed without become breathless or histrionic. Katchen is prepared to indulge little acts of quixotic rhythm and accenting but elsewhere he is fleet and determined. An attractive performance. The Prokofiev is commandingly played but a little lacking in the requisite feeling. Katchen is joined by Georg Solti for the Rachmaninoff No 2. We can hear immediately the intense precision of the strings (ignore the atrocious edit at 3’20 in the First Movement) as also the extreme amount of nervous tension in the winds and the violins’ scamper. There is muscle aplenty here but also linearity at the expense of real creative tension albeit Solti is – sometimes – almost uniquely responsive to orchestral counter-themes. There is again something insistent and unrestful about the impatient phrasing of the second movement and Katchen’s staccato-lyric phrasing is unmoving, doubtless not at all helped by what seems an unsympathetic collaboration. Solti is certainly impressive at bringing out the mordant and corrosive brass at the opening of the Finale but Katchen is comprehensively covered by the strings at the end of a movement that doesn’t really seem to get anywhere. Things improve dramatically with Adrian Boult. Delectable incident flecks the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; this is not the quicksilver kind of accompaniment Fritz Reiner provided for William Kapell but it’s nevertheless full of pleasurable moments, Boult bringing out flute and harp detail to the benefit of the orchestral landscape. Katchen is splendidly warm without any recourse to rhetoric or spurious point making. As indeed he is in the Dohnányi Variations: how splendidly he plays from 8’20, pellucid music box filigree, and Boult’s sophisticated crescendo-decrescendo accompaniment. It’s difficult to think of a more unlikely pairing than Katchen and Mantovani in Gershwin. True to form it doesn’t work. Mantovani always had a goodly sprinkling of superb instrumentalists and freelancers in his orchestra – it was long-term led by that illustrious violinist David MacCullum – but this was not its finest half-hour. Bitter trumpet courses through the first movement and some rather over cluttered string playing and textual amendments disfigure it as well. There’s a solo trumpet blaring away like Harry James on an off night in the second movement; perhaps best to draw a veil on all this, little of which is Katchen’s fault. When it came to the Rhapsody in Blue Katchen was joined by Kertesz and the LSO. The clarinet aspires neatly to the Blues, the trumpets are tightly muted, and just when you think Katchen is getting too monumental he speeds away and masters the art of appearing familiar with the idiom whilst not overplaying it. His chording becomes thunderous at 7’45 with some brilliant scampering up and down the keyboard. I found the close slightly disappointing – with some slightly gabbled fast-slow sections proving just too abruptly contrastive for ease. He and Kertesz made a splendid pairing in the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand as they do in the G Major. Fluently accented, sometimes curt but not brittle in the first movement, rubato does occasionally harden in the second. Katchen’s playing is undeniably masterful but there’s a lack of ascent and coalescence. A splendid finale though. I admired the Britten Diversions, the composer on the rostrum. From verdancy to crisp decay, imitative tone row and repetitious string phrases – superbly effective – and the passionate eloquence of the four-minute Adagio this is a true achievement. As is the Bartok Third Concerto – vivacity and life-affirming playing in the opening movement, stillness in the second achieved by timing, chordal depth, pedal control and subtle use of the piano’s decay. His virtuosity and musical intelligence are prominent in the finale, conducted with equal virtuosity by Kertesz and the LSO.

Volumes 7 and 8 are devoted entirely to the solo repertoire. Again qualities of probing intelligence, virtuosity controlled by understanding, rhythmic elasticity and cantabile phrasing are prominently on show. His Beethoven Sonatas are commanding edifices but the towering achievement here is his 46-minute Diabelli Variations. This was recorded in two 3-hour sessions, during the course of which he gave three uninterrupted performances. It’s undoubtedly the high point of these last discs dwarfing even his achievements elsewhere. The Op 35 Chopin Funeral March Sonata is limited in pleasure. Katchen evinces his tendency to run away at climaxes and a rather poor sense of line in the first movement. The sense of discursiveness and undue haste carries over to the second movement and if the concluding movements are a real advance it still doesn’t salvage the work. The third Sonata is much better. He captures the rise and fall, the motoric exultation and sense of fantasy with exciting musicality. The Fantasie-Polonaise is taken at a good basic tempo, full of time for inflection and dynamics. The Polonaise is full of delirious control. The smaller morceaux that complete the discs are cherishable reminders of his intimacy and grace.

This is a set of major importance. He was a pianist of significant gifts and as Cyrus Meher-Homji’s notes forcefully remind us, pianism and musicality such as Katchen’s come but rarely and should be embraced when they do.

Jonathan Woolf

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