DOHNANYI: Variations on a Nursery Tune, Op. 25; RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 – Julius Katchen, piano/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult – Pristine Audio

by | Feb 11, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

DOHNANYI: Variations on a Nursery Tune, Op. 25; RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 – Julius Katchen, piano/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult – Pristine Audio PASC 266, 45:49 [avail. in several diff. formats at] ****:
These two stereo performances from Decca (rec. 1959) feature the imposing virtuosity of American pianist Julius Katchen (1926-1969) in collaboration with Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983), who by the way, had recorded the 1914 Dohnanyi work with the composer himself at the keyboard. The sonic presence of the Variations performance–taken from quarter-track stereo open reel Ampex tape–remains quite astonishing for its fidelity to the principals’ contributions, not the least of which derives from Dohnanyi’s masterful application of orchestral colors. The piece–a theme, 13 variations, and coda–transforms the little French ditty into a series of Romantic postures, sincere and mocking, that quite embrace the full range of expressive possibilities, including the palettes of Brahms, Wagner, and Debussy.
Katchen’s sleek and athletic tone has rarely been heard to such boisterous and plangent advantage, and each of the variations allows him another string for his incredible harp of effects. The grand Viennese waltz both salutes and taunts Old Vienna, and most likely every European musical personality who might have attended the premier of this audacious piece. The singular momentum the two collaborators produce becomes quite intense, almost fixated on the thunderous climax that outlines the original motif in huge, spatial chords and fluttering arpeggios in the keyboard. The inevitable fugue smirks and breezily wends its way through the orchestral tissue, all the while Katchen’s agile filigree weaves a magic carpet of runs and roulades that breaks off into the opening motto–abetted by tympani and bassoon–with affected innocence.
The same capacity for lyrical sarcasm permeates the Rachmaninov Rhapsody, whose pianistic approximations of Paganini’s bariolage technique for the violin and his bold use of string color transfer brilliantly to Rachmaninov’s digital palette. Katchen’s approach seems cool and scalpel-objective, yet his innate capacity for rounded periods and broad phraseology clearly links him to the William Kapell school of thought. The sonic definition on the galloping string pizzicati and horn punctuations quite resonates to classify this restoration as an audiophile’s natural delight. The Dies Irae has rarely arisen with such volcanic menace, a clear throwback to the Liszt Totentanz that inspired Rachmaninov. The ensuing variants on the sequence from the Requiem Mass assume a plastic and sensuous life of their own, a balletic story line of seduction, love, and mortality. A long ineluctable arch takes us to the coveted Variation 18, and it, too, does not disappoint for voluptuous magnitude. The final group and coda scintillate even as they individually explode with light and nervous energy. Katchen, having removed any “inhibitions” in his playing, drives the last pages, hard and infectious as they are apocalyptic. Wonderful stuff!
— Gary Lemco

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