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The Art of Julius Katchen
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1797) Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1795) Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800) Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major ‘Emperor’, Op. 73 (1809) Rondo in B flat major for piano and orchestra (1794)
Julius Katchen (piano) London Symphony Orchestra/Piero Gamba Recorded January 1965 (No. 1), June 1963 (No. 2), December 1963 (No. 5) Walthamstow Assembly Hall, September 1958 (No. 3; Rondo) Kingsway Hall, London

DECCA 460 822-2
[2CDs: 75.21 + 74.38]

Julius Katchen rightly features in that distinguished series of recordings marketed under the title ‘Great Pianists of the Century’. Yet his achievement might have been greater still but for the cancer that claimed him in 1969 at the tragically early age of forty-two. This 2CD set of Beethoven recordings, issued by Decca along with a companion set that contains the Fourth Concerto and music by Mozart (240 825-2), makes an apt memorial tribute.

These recordings have rarely been out of the catalogue since they were made in the fifties and sixties. One reason for this is that they have adequately good sound, with clear textures so that detail can be heard, and a pleasing balance between piano and orchestra. This serves the music well. The performance of the First Concerto is particularly fine – as good as the set contains, in fact – with an impressive command of larger-scale issues and including the largest of Beethoven’s three first movement cadenzas. The tempi are crisp and vibrant; just right for this music. On the other hand the slow movement is wonderfully poetic, bringing out the full range of Beethoven’s approach to the classical style.

Katchen’s remarkable virtuosity is experienced in that most Mozartian of all Beethoven’s compositions, the Concerto No. 2. The vagaries of publication led to this work gaining a later opus number and identity than the C major Concerto (above); but there is no question that stylistically it is the earlier work, looking back rather than forward. The performance is beautifully judged, with an emphasis on excitement and virtuosity whenever the musical line allows.

The Third Concerto is the opposite of the Second, in the sense that the musical style, while being thoroughly classical in its language, is forward-looking and very much ‘middle period’ Beethoven. The opening tutti, dramatically shaped by Gamba and the LSO, immediately presents this agenda, though there are more exciting performances to be found, not least the new DG version with Rattle, Brendel and the Vienna Philharmonic. Katchen’s playing, however, gives place to no-one in the work, and as proceedings develop there is a compelling intensity. This is true of both the remaining movements, as the tension is maintained through Beethoven’s imaginatively varied developments. The finale is notable, for example, for its vigour and sheer élan.

The Rondo in B flat was, it seems, the original finale of the Piano Concerto (No. 2) in the same key. It is an appealing piece, though familiarity, not to mention the composer’s own judgement, leads us to prefer the revision always heard nowadays. Be that as it may, Katchen is a persuasive advocate, and performs the music with a crisp rhythmic articulation that suits it admirably.

Terry Barfoot


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