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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24 (1861) [26:30]; Variations [Studies] on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35, Books I, II (1862-1863) [11:52 + 9:37]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Études symphoniques, Op. 13 (1834-1837) [24:15]*
Julius Katchen (piano)
rec. London, March 1958; *May 1953 ADD Mono
DECCA AUSTRALIA ELOQUENCE 476 8484 [72:22]

Preferring my LP Brahms from old-timers or the likes of Klien (CD: Vox Classics 3612), Gilels, Kovacevich, Lupu or Michelangeli, I always regarded Katchen’s Decca cycle from the mid-1960s (CD: Decca 455247-2) as a variable standby of the stereo age, useful in part but spiritually slender. Pre-dating that project, the present mono accounts are of lesser calibre. You get all the notes - well most anyway: some get lost through excessive speed or untidy pedalling - but without much fantasy, refinement, or rhythmic tension. And with only occasional charm (Handel 5, 11, 12, a deliberated ‘Hungarian’ 13, 20, 22; Paganini I/11, 12; II/4, 5, 12). The theme of the Handel (the first large-scale piece JK taped for Decca, in April 1949) stays earth-bound; that of the Paganini, paradoxically beautified, fights shy of the devil. Come the puissance fences, Katchen clears them easily enough, but isolates rather than integrates the experience. Not for the first or last time, taking refuge in mechanics before musicality proves his Achilles heel – there’s a limit to the number of bionic thrills you can take - V10-powered contrary octaves, snow-boarding semiquavers … Paganini II/11, 14 [5:48, 8:27] - before praying for something subtler and more humanly vulnerable. Under-produced, both works disappoint climactically. The Handel fugue demands greater monumentality than a contra B flat at the end. And the final pages of both Paganini books - no repetition of the theme before II - lack prudence, their thumping and floundering for air - forewarned from Book I/4; Handel 24, 25 - descending into undisciplined spectacle.

The Schumann, Katchen’s only version of the work, follows the longer first edition (twelve study-variations), but omits the Supplement. I detect cool efficiency and a rush of adrenalin in the ‘concert’-style finish, but not so much warmth – one or two special moments apart (Var 2; the penultimate ‘old world’ G sharp minor, finely peaked). The 1955 Record Guide (Sackville-West/Shawe-Taylor) thought the performance wasn’t ‘among the best things this remarkable pianist has recorded. Some of the quick variations are rushed off their feet: in No 9 - with Clara Schumann’s second repeat, omitted from the Sauer text - no pianist, however steel-fingered, could expect to give us all the notes at so breakneck a speed. The recording is hollow [school hall].’ Geza Anda on Columbia (second edition) was the preferred choice of the day (CD: Testament SBT 1069).

Katchen admirers will want these first releases in CD format. Old mono edits, analogue tape pre-echo, and artless changes of ambience between takes or numbers remain, however. Tracking is ungenerous: Brilliant (in a Brahms box worth dipping into [92182/3-4]) gives separate idents for each variation – all 53 of them.

Ateş Orga

 

 



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