One of the most grown-up review sites around
One of the most grown-up review sites around

Search MusicWeb Here


International mailing

Up to 40% off

  Founder: Len Mullenger



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

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



Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical

Nimbus Podcast

Obtain 10% discount

Special offer 50% off

Musicweb sells the following labels
Acte Préalable
(THE Polish label)
Altus 10% off
Atoll 10% off
CRD 10% off
Hallé 10% off
Lyrita 10% off
Nimbus 10% off
Nimbus Alliance
Prima voce 10% off
Red Priest 10% off
Retrospective 10% off
Saydisc 10% off
Sterling 10% off

Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing

Sample: See what you will get

Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
Rob Barnett
Senior Editor
John Quinn
Seen & Heard
Editor Emeritus
   Bill Kenny
Editor in Chief
MusicWeb Webmaster
   David Barker
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger

Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.