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.