June 2004

The Art of Julius Katchen, Vols. 1 & 2
Beethoven: Piano Concertos etc.;
Mozart: Concertos, Sonata

Julius Katchen (piano); orchestras conducted by Piero Gamba, Peter Maag, Karl Münchinger
Decca 460 822-2, 460 825-2 [two CD each]
Released: 2004

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Julius Katchen, born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1926, was one of the most admired pianists of his pianistically remarkable generation -- and much of the admiration came from fellow pianists. Katchen, who performed as soloist with the New York Philharmonic at age 11, never had a great career in his own country, but he was big in Europe (he based himself in Paris, where he died of cancer in 1969, not yet 43 years old) He recorded a good deal for Decca in the last 15 years of his life. One of his early successes on LP was a monophonic pairing of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Ernst von Dohnányi’s somewhat less familiar but hardly less enchanting Variations on a Nursery Song, with the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult.

The same team remade that coupling in stereo, and these performances were remastered in Decca’s "Classic Sound" series several years ago, together with a striking Rachmaninoff Second Concerto conducted by Georg Solti [448 604-2]. With a younger Hungarian conductor, István Kertész (who, like the pianist himself, died in his early forties), Katchen recorded Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and concertos by Grieg, Schumann, Bartók, Ravel and Prokofiev, but his discography is most heavily weighted in the section devoted to Brahms. He recorded substantially all of Brahms’s works for piano solo, both of the piano concertos (No. 1 with Pierre Monteux conducting, No. 2 with János Ferencsik), and much of the chamber music (the three piano trios, the three violin sonatas and the two for cello and piano, with the violinist Josef Suk and the cellist Janos Starker). All those Brahms recordings are circulating on CD now, the concertos and trios in Volumes 3 and 4, respectively [460 828-2, 460 831-2], of the memorial series "The Art of Julius Katchen."

In the same series -- as Volumes 1 and 2, in fact -- is a Beethoven concerto cycle that may have been overlooked by many collectors in favor of such established senior pianists as Arthur Rubinstein, Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus and Rudolf Serkin. As in his Brahms, Katchen in his 30s brought to his Beethoven an enlivening approach that combined intellectual rigor with sheer vitality and enthusiasm. His survey of the five concertos, with Piero Gamba conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, is remarkably fresh-faced as well as characteristically full of both substance and revelations. Especially appealing here are two concerted works far less familiar than the concertos: the unusual Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra (with the LSO Chorus, in Vol. 2 with the Fourth Concerto and four Mozart works) and the Rondo in B-flat that was apparently the original finale of the Second Concerto (in Vol. 1 with the rest of the Beethoven concertos).

Gamba was an imaginative choice for this assignment, and in the event an excellent partner. Throughout the five concertos themselves, as well as in the Choral Fantasy and the Rondo, there is a remarkable sense of spontaneity, a sense of real give-and-take between soloist and conductor, as well an abundance of good humor. Katchen enjoyed the level of rapport with Gamba, apparently, that he did with Kertész; in addition to the qualities just cited, which we generally associate more with live performances than studio sessions, one is aware of an instinctive overall depth and un-self-conscious tastefulness that kept the various elements in balance throughout all seven works.

Gamba, nearly ten years Katchen’s junior, was still being billed as "Pierino" when these recordings were issued on LP. He made few other recordings; in the 1970s and ‘80s he headed orchestras in Canada and Australia. The conductors of the three Mozart concertos in Vol. 2 were far more conspicuous on Decca. Peter Maag, perhaps the greatest Mozart conductor of the 20th century, first turned up in recordings of that composer’s early symphonies and serenades in 1951. The Piano Concertos Nos. 13 (C major, K. 415, included here) and 20 (D minor, K. 466) with Katchen were his first concerto recordings (the orchestra was the New Symphony of London), and were somewhat disappointing, on both his part and the pianist’s. One had the feeling the two were thrown into a recording studio without prior acquaintance or any opportunity to discuss the works they would record, let alone develop a collaborative approach. (That was an all too frequent practice for years; Maag remarked with astonishment on having to do just that in his subsequent concerto recordings for Deutsche Grammophon.)

Katchen remade the D minor (his boyhood début vehicle) with Karl Münchinger and his Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, this time coupled with No. 25 in C major (K. 503); both of these are also in Vol. 2. While Münchinger and his orchestra made dozens of splendid recordings for Decca over the years, these collaborations with Katchen were rather unfortunate. Everything the orchestra played seemed to be at a steady mezzo-forte -- perhaps deliberately so in an effort to redress the recorded balance that put the ensemble too far in the background. Katchen’s own energy seems to have deserted him, too. Both of these concertos, after all, are big, dramatic works, and Katchen seems to have been either unwilling or (less than a year before his death) unable to marshal his customary vitality. One assumes the Mozart was included simply for the sake of completeness. The A-major Sonata, K. 331, which happens to be the earliest recording in these sets (1954), does benefit from a more characteristically vigorous approach, but this too is merely filler. The interest here, and it is considerable, lies in the Beethoven; fortunately, these seven works are the best-sounding as well as the best-played.