RECORD OF THE MONTH

Johannes BRAHMS (1833 Ė 1897) Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, op.5 (1853) [32:14]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 Ė 1943) Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 (1900/1901) [31:54]
Julius Katchen (piano)
New Symphony Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
rec. 11 October 1949, West Hampstead Studios, London (Brahms) and 11-12 April 1951 Kingsway Hall, London (Rachmaninov)
ReĖissues of decca AX423/427 and LX4012 (Brahms) and AX 535-539 and LLP 384 (Rachmaninov). ADD
PRISTINE AUDIO PAKM035 [64:28]

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 Brittenís Diversions for piano left hand and orchestra (written for Wittgenstein), Dohnanyiís Nursery Song Variations, Rachmaninovís 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 Brahmsís op. 5 Sonata, and concerto soloist, in Rachmaninovís 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 Brahmsí op. 5 Sonata is exactly what you want. This is, obviously, a young manís performance, but it is also the work of a young composer Ė 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 isnít 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 manís account, with brisk tempi in the outer movements. If weíre not used to this itís 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 itís 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 Katchenís performance of it on its first appearance, itís 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.

Bob Briggs

These performances are amongst the best available Ö see Full Review