When Julius Katchen died of cancer in 1969, at the frighteningly
young age of 42, the world lost one of the very great pianists.
Born in New Jersey he made his Concerto debut when only 10 years
old, and after studies he toured Europe in the spring of 1947.
I should add that his studies included a four-year degree in
philosophy at Haverford College, which he completed in three,
graduating top of his class. After recitals in Rome, Venice,
Naples, Paris, London and Salzburg, he made the decision to
make his home is Paris, saying "In France piano students
come together constructively, and they can even become friends.
They attend one another's concerts and applaud. In the US they
go to hear a colleague play, but only in the hope of seeing
him break his neck."
In a recording career stretching from 1947 to 1968 he recorded
a wide variety of repertoire, ranging from Benjamin Britten’s
Diversions for piano left hand and orchestra (written
for Wittgenstein), Dohnanyi’s Nursery Song Variations,
Rachmaninov’s 2nd Concerto and
Paganini Rhapsody (both twice) to Chopin, Liszt, Ravel
and much else, including all the Brahms Piano works for Decca
in the 1960s. It is also interesting that he was the first pianist
to be heard on the new-fangled LP as recitalist, in Brahms’s
op. 5 Sonata, and concerto soloist, in Rachmaninov’s
2nd Concerto. It is these two
performances we have on this disk.
Julius Katchen was a pianist in the heroic virtuoso mould, and
his performance of Brahms’ op. 5 Sonata is exactly what
you want. This is, obviously, a young man’s performance, but
it is also the work of a young composer – Brahms was 20 when
he wrote the work and Katchen 22 when he made this recording.
Thus the two were made for one another. This is a big performance,
full of the grand romantic gesture, yet tempered, at all times,
by intelligence and restraint. Perhaps his later account isn’t
quite as flamboyant as this but no matter, they are both worth
having. This is a really eye-opening account for, after hearing
this, no one could say that Brahms was a dull composer. Oh yes,
there are some who hold this view.
The Rachmaninov is also very much a young man’s account, with
brisk tempi in the outer movements. If we’re not used to this
it’s probably because tempi have slowed down in this work, perhaps
in the mistaken idea that the music needs a more romantic approach.
Nonsense. As Katchen proves here, play the music and it’s full
of romantic fervour. The slow movement has a cool poise and
the finale, although brisk, allows itself time to deliver the
big tune. I cannot find words to describe Katchen’s performance
of it on its first appearance, it’s just so marvellous. Fistoulari
is a real duo partner for he directs a full-blooded performance
of the orchestral part, which is truly equal to the piano and
not a mere accompaniment.
The sound is very good, crisp and clear. In the Brahms on a
couple of occasions, when Katchen increases the volume, the
piano image becomes hard but this is a small, passing, problem.
The balance between piano and orchestra in the Concerto is good,
but the sound should be good for the producer for both items
was the great John Culshaw. These performances, as far as I
am concerned, are amongst the best available and under no circumstances
should this excellent disk be missed.