Julian von Károlyi (piano)
Piano Recitals in Germany
MELOCLASSIC MC1062 
Julian von Károlyi was born in Losoncz in Hungary (now part of Slovakia) just before the start of World War One; he lost his army officer father when he was just two. He began to play the piano aged eight, making huge progress with Lajos Ákom, an organist and composer, and then with Margit Varró, a teacher suggested by Bartók. He must have been precocious; after just a couple of years he played short works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in concert and Mozart's E flat Concerto when he was twelve. Lessons now moved to Munich and after a few months with Josef Pembaur (1875-1950) a student of Ludwig Thuille and Liszt-pupil Alfred Reisenauer, he went to Max von Pauer at the Leipzig Conservatory. Liszt was a big focus, especially with Pembauer but it was Chopin's E minor Concerto that he chose to play with a student orchestra in 1929. In that same year he appeared at London's Aeolian Hall and toured England as a soloist on Feodor Chaliapin's tour to great acclaim. His romantic leanings are clear in the works he played at the time - Balakirev's Islamey, lots of Chopin and Liszt including the B minor Sonata, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne – but he also played Debussy and Ravel. He participated in Alfred Cortot's masterclass in 1930-31 and went on to win the Blüthner Piano Factory Competition but was disappointed with his placing in the 1932 International Chopin Competition. He returned for more study, this time with Ernst von Dohnányi, after which he began his concert career in earnest. One of his first concerts was in Berlin, a recital that included the Franck and Dohnányi works that are heard here some twenty years later, and further concerts included a concerto evening – Beethoven fifth, Chopin first and Rachmaninov second; do pianists still do these marathon events that used to be so popular? Over the next few years he played with some outstanding conductors; Wilhelm Mengleberg, Hans Knappertsbusch, János Ferencsik, Ferenc Fricsay, Joseph Keilberth and Clemens Krauss with whom he performed Richard Strauss' Burleske in the presence of the composer at his 80th birthday celebrations. Thereafter he based himself in Munich, performing far and wide; though he made a strong impression in Europe and the far east he never really conquered America despite performing there often. His final years were away from the platform, teaching at the Hochschule für Musik in Würzburg. He passed away in Munich in 1993.
These recording come from radio broadcasts in the mid-fifties. Meloclassic have already released his Liszt Concertos and other works from 1943-44 live broadcasts (Meloclassic MC1012 review), a disc I haven't heard. My only awareness of his playing was hearing a rather muscular Tschaikowsky first Concerto some time ago and what I dimly remember of that performance is confirmed by these radio recitals. Liszt is featured heavily, no surprise there, and what a strong impression he creates with the first item, the first Mephisto waltz. While very different to another astonishing version I have recently reviewed, that of Edith Farnadi (Meloclassic MC1066 review) it is still an absolute corker, virtuosic, pin sharp and with a grand romantic sweep. The two Liszt études, recorded in April of that year are as impressive with crystalline playing and superbly passionate ardour though I do feel that the big emotions on display sometimes lack an element of charm, notably in the delicate figuration at the end of Feux follets. The Hungarian Rhapsodie that he played in an April 1956 recital has no such issues and it seems the improvisatory nature of the piece brings out the best in him. To a certain extent this continues into the Franck Prélude, Choral et Fugue that comes from the same session which has an improvisatory quality from the opening arpeggios, almost flung onto the keyboard. Once again Károlyi's approach is large scale and again I find that while I love its grand passions I occasionally yearn for more contrast; in the Choral he is magnificently cantabile but he goes a little too far with the non troppo dolce (not too sweet) for me though the raw emotions he churns up are certainly powerful. The fugue is full of textural contrast and, if he doesn't feel that Franck's tranquillo part way through is for him there is no denying the impact he creates. The Dohnányi Rhapsodie that ends this particular session suits his romantic nature down to the ground and is preferable to any of the versions that the composer recorded in my opinion.
His Chopin Fantaisie is strong stuff and while he embraces its episodic nature one can hear echoes of an American critic writing of his New York début quoted in the booklet; there were often passages that were speeded up for the sake of brilliance at the expense of the musical meaning. Of course Károlyi was born at the end of an age when such surges of passion were part and parcel of the musical meaning and for the most part he keeps these urges to very specific instances, the triplets after the march for example. Speaking of virtuosic brilliance one must mention his jaw-dropping Étude en forme d'une valse by Saint-Saëns, effortless and dazzling but also showing that he can conjure elegance and charm with the best. In April 1955 he played just two Debussy works and while the exuberance of the earlier French composer translates very nicely into a colourful l'isle joyeuse, brimming with character, it does not make for entirely comfortable listening in Cloches ŕ travers les feuilles where his Lisztian bravura somewhat swamps the sensation of chiming bells heard through a haze; there is beauty in his sound it is not Debussy playing as we know it.
Michael Waiblinger's notes are meticulous as usual and the booklet includes several photos including a slightly blurry one with Alfred Cortot. In another he is seated at the piano, perhaps the Blüthner that was a part of his 1931 win? The sound and production are exceptional and I am grateful to Lynn Ludwig and Meloclassic for adding this pianist to their growing roster of resurrected treasures. I shall certainly be on the lookout for more of Károlyi's recordings.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Mephisto Waltz No.1 S.514
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Étude en forme d'une valse Op.52 No.6
rec. 2 Feb, 1954 Stuttgart, Krone SDR
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Fantaisie in F minor Op.49
Feux Follets S.139 No.5
La Leggiarezza S.144 No.2
rec. 27 April, 1954 Frankfurt Raum 3, HR
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Cloches ŕ travers les feuilles No.1 from Images Book 2
rec. 26 April, 1955 Frankfurt Raum 3, HR
Hungarian rhapsodie No.13 in A minor S.244 No.13
César Franck (1822-1890)
Prélude, Choral et Fugue M.21
Ernest von Dohnányi (1877-1960)
Rhapsody in C major Op.11 No.3
rec. 13 April, 1956 Bremen Studio F, RB
Published: November 18, 2022