Julian von Károlyi (1914-1993) was born Gyula Károlyi in Hungary and studied in Budapest, making his debut there in 1926, the same year he and his family emigrated to Germany. There he took the form of his name with which one is most familiar, studying successively with Josef Pembaur and Max von Pauer and eventually Alfred Cortot, in Paris. Later still he returned to Budapest to study with Dohnányi, and began a promising career that was – as with so many – curtailed by the war. After it, he made successful tours to America and elsewhere and earned a reputation as a powerful romantic player, especially of Chopin.
It’s as a ‘Chopinist’ that I have largely been aware of him, not least the impressive series of often live recordings that were preserved from the 1950s: the Preludes, Etudes, the Second Piano Concerto, Ballades, Nocturnes; and also examples of his Liszt, not least the 1965 Sonata performance. Now here come some fascinating documents from wartime, in the form of the fruit of three recitals made by Reichssender Berlin in 1943-44. The E flat major Concerto with Johannes Schüler dates from March 1943 and shows him, once past a nervous opening finger slip or two (which soon pass), to be an imaginatively equipped virtuoso in the repertoire, one who marries technical strength with rich lyric ardour. He quarries the Quasi adagio
for its expressive rubati, bringing a strong sense of colour to bear, fortunately preserved in the recording which is good for its time and place. His sense of characterisation is always invigorating and his sense of Lisztian panache is not compromised by any tendency to bang. The sound remains full, round, but never forced.
Two months later he was back in the studio to record the companion A major Concerto with the same orchestra, but this time directed by Heinzkarl Weigel. At the start the sound is somewhat wavery but it sounds worse in the string and wind spectrums than the piano, fortunately, and in any case one should persevere as it doesn’t last too long and soon stabilises. There’s a good, forwardly recorded cello solo in the second movement where the piano’s gentle decorations are well-balanced against it. Once again Károlyi is on fine form – never slapdash, or merely declamatory, never simply content to parade virtuosity at the expense of poetry, but equally careful to bind together the competing attractions of Liszt’s music to form a satisfying, Romantic whole. Those who are familiar with the 1959 LP recording he made of the concertos with his compatriot Istvan Kertesz and the Philharmonica Hungarica should know that the driving eloquence of these earlier live wartime broadcasts is in no way dimmed by the circumstances of their preservation.
In October 1944 he recorded a recital in Berlin that was Franco-Hungarian in orientation. He is in his element in the two Liszt piece. There’s a touch of very brief tape wow in one bar but it’s over before you notice. Both the Valse oubliée
and La campanella
are known from other surviving broadcasts but these performances are up with the pianist’s finest performances. His approach to Debussy and Ravel is very different and stylistically interesting to encounter. He plays them very much as studies. La fille aux cheveux de lin
, is very fast, uninflected – except toward the very end and then not wholly – and lightly pedalled. Clear-eyed, somewhat objectified, it shares with the two other Préludes in these performances the quality of a coolly detached clinician. In very much the same way the Ravel brace is decidedly chilly, but technically assuredly adroit.
There are hardly any demerits at all about this release. The gap between tracks is a matter of a second or two so I suggest you get ready with the pause button. The performances themselves are often extremely exciting in the core repertoire, and Károlyi emerges as a frequently magnetic romantic stylist. The solo recital shows his aloofly Hungarian-German approach to French music, but one can take that kind of thing once in a while. An excellent acquisition for piano collectors.