Julius Katchen, p. = Works of LISZT, BRAHMS, BEETHOVEN, SCHUMANN, CHOPIN – Audite (2 CDs)

by | May 6, 2014 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Julius Katchen = LISZT: Piano Sonata in B Minor; BRAHMS: 7 Fantasies, Op. 116; Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2; Romanze, Op. 118, No. 5; Scherzo in E-flat Major, Op. 4; BEETHOVEN: 32 Variations in C Minor; Rondo a capriccio, Op. 129; SCHUMANN: Vogel als Prophet, Op. 82, No. 7; CHOPIN: Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2; Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47; Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2; Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57 –  Julius Katchen, piano – Audite 21.419 (2 CDs), 59:25, 49:41 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

American piano virtuoso Julius Katchen (1926-1969), touted for his Brahms interpretations, inscribed a broader legacy in Berlin for RIAS in 1962 and 1964, and those archival tapes now find their way to Audite. After a prodigious debut at ten, Katchen took a extended hiatus from concert life, in order to fill out his intellectual life with philosophy and literature, establishing himself in Paris after 1946 and re-emerging as a fully mature virtuoso in 1949.  Katchen only returned to America in 1962, claiming that the European pedagogical climate encouraged “self-realization” along with the opportunities “to return to the same city over and over again. . .you develop your public, and you can gradually give them harder programs.”

This Audite anthology provides six “first” releases to Katchen’s already impressive recorded legacy. The largest of these works, the Liszt B Minor Sonata (19 February 1962) receives a fondly dramatic performance – often blazingly fast with concomitant, hectic finger slips – that combines searching, rhapsodic poignancy and demonic fury. Katchen’s pearly play beguiles as much as his stentorian block chords and thrilling runs, and we feel a formal convergence at those periods that mark the Schubert influence – via the Wanderer Fantasy – that provide the stages and contours of (often polyphonic) development for this epic and mercurial work.  Katchen does not cultivate a particularly pretty tone in the course of Liszt’s evolution, emphasizing more than most pianists the aggressive, harmonically experimental side of the composer’s complex personality. When Katchen does exploit the “Aeolian harp” aspects of the instrument, they better illuminate the shimmering ecstasies of the composer’s mystical visions.

Katchen then turns to his personal trump card, the music of Johannes Brahms, which Katchen rendered in a slightly “antique” style. From the same February session Katchen gives two of the six Klavierstuecke, Op. 118. The expressive A Major Intermezzo enjoys a broadly florid performance, almost aromatic in its nostalgia. The Romanze in F Major – long a favorite of Artur Rubinstein – begins rather tentatively but soon blossoms into that “rainy day” Brahms of soulful reminiscence, layered in gentle polyphony. Katchen’s right hand trills become a compelling trope in and for themselves in the service of somber introspection.

An aggressive Capriccio in D Minor (rec. 25 May 1964) opens the 1893 set of Seven Fantasies, followed by a mellow Andante and an even more heavy-breathing Capriccio: Allegro passionato in G Minor.  The fourth of the set, Adagio Brahms had originally marked Notturno, and Katchen caresses its warm nostalgia in E Major. The rocking motion of the E Minor Intermezzo has tiny dissonances that propel it forward, which eventually resolve into a bittersweet evocation of “old bachelor music.” Almost funereal, the E Major Intermezzo at first mourns under Katchen, then to rise in melodic sweetness that casts a kind of chorale sensibility on the whole. One recalls the slow movement of his D Minor Piano Concerto in its epic sadness. The set concludes as it began, with a stormy Capriccio in D Minor, this vehemently manic and uncompromising in its militant austerity. The Brahms group concludes with the 1851 Scherzo in E-flat Minor, a piece that savors Beethoven’s repetitive energy and Schumann’s love of two trios. Katchen asserts the piece with lusty energy, a wry and playful wit that might nod to any of the Chopin scherzos, despite the claim by the composer that he had known of them at the time.

Besides Mindru Katz, Julis Katchen addresses (19 February 1962) Beethoven’s 1806 32 Variations in C Minor as a vehicle for unremitting exercise in stentorian, monumental pianism. Virtually every technique for the keyboard – octaves, trills, arpeggios, scales, runs, staccato motion in thirds – Beethoven exploits for the sake of elaborating on his “fateful” theme. That the entire composition begs to be labeled stum und drang in temperament finds ample testimony in Katchen’s volatile realization, breathless and feverishly dramatic at once. The quicksilver Rondo ingharese, Der Wut ueber den verlorenen Groschen from 1795 exhibits manic wit, an etude, Allegro vivace, rife with toccata motion.  More than once, the powerful motion of alternating chords and passing fugatos points to the same virtuoso features in the Waldstein Sonata.  Where potent muscularity rules in Beethoven, a delicate tracery effect occupies the Schumann Vogels als Prophet from Forest Scenes, whose middle section Katchen plays as a pantheistic orison.

Katchen’s recital concludes with a Chopin group, of which the Ballade No. 3 alone derives from the 1962 session. The renditions remain well within a literalist tradition, spare of rubato but delicate and polyphonic massive, as required. Katchen possesses a flexible and communicative trill. Transparent and emotionally contoured, the pieces do not achieve the incandescent soulfulness of Rubinstein, Horowitz, and Michelangeli, but rather remind one of the efficient poetics of Magaloff and compatriot Kapell.  After two fine nocturnes and a fervent A-flat Ballade, the subtle pyrotechnics of the dragonfly Berceuse ring with diaphanously virile authority, most impressive for our first taste of Katchen’s Chopin.

—Gary Lemco

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