“The American pianist Julius Katchen made his name in the early 1950s and died in 1969, but although he's generally though of as a distinguished figure from the last generation, it's salutary to realise that he would probably be performing today if his career had not ended when he was only 42. Even so, his legacy of recordings reminds us of his gifts and the breadth of his repertory, and the present Brahms cycle has distinction. It begins with an account of the Paganini Variations that gives ample proof of his assured technique: the playing tells us at once that the challenging variations in sixths (Nos 1 and 2 in Book 1) held no terrors for him, and the athleticism here is matched by a fluency in the leggiero writing of the variation that follows. In this work, though, you're generally made more aware of a keyboard virtuoso than a poet; there are other performances which balance these two qualities more finely. Tempos tend to rapidity, too, and the piano sound tends to have a hardish brilliance. However, he does bring a gentler quality to the three other sets of variations here, not least in his freer use of rubato and tonal nuance, as witness (say) the serene Variations Nos 11-12 in the big Handel set, where the recording from three years earlier is easier on the ear. Here, as elsewhere, there's a little tape hiss, but not enough to distract.
Poetry is to be found in good measure in Katchen's playing of the Four Ballades, Op 10.
These pieces belie the composer's youth in their deep introspection, though the pianist takes a brisk view of the Andante con moto tempo in No 4. The 16 Waltzes of Op 39 are attractive too in their crispness and charm, and the early Scherzo in E flat minor has the right dour vigour. The three sonatas are also impressive in their strong, energetic interpretative grasp, though you could wish that the first-movement repeat of No 1 had been observed. Also, slow movements could have a still more inward quality to convey that brooding self-communion which is so characteristic of this composer (though that of Sonata No 3 in F minor is pretty near it). But the great F minor Sonata is spacious and thoughtful as well as leonine, and this is a noble performance, well recorded in 1966.
The shorter pieces are finely done also.
Katchen is in his element in the Two Rhapsodies of Op 79, balancing the stormy and lyrical qualities to perfection. The Fantasias, Op 116, aren't so well recorded (the sound is a bit muffled).
However, the playing is masterly, with tragedy, twilight mystery and storm and stress fully play- ing their part and giving a golden glow to such pieces as the lovely E major Intermezzo which is No 6 of the set and the A major Intermezzo, Op 118 No 2. Possibly more sensuous gipsy charm could be found in, say, the B minor Capriccio of Op 76, but it's very attractive playing and the playful C major Intermezzo in Op 119 is delightful, as is the tender lullaby that begins Op 117.
Only the first 10 of the 21 Hungarian Dances exist in the composer's own (very difficult) version for piano solo, and in the others, written for piano duet, Katchen is joined by Jean-Pierre Marty; there's plenty of fire here and much to enjoy. Altogether, this Brahms set is a fine memorial to Katchen and a worthy issue.”
Variations on a theme by Paganini in A minor, Op. 35
variations 1 & 2
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
Ballades (4), Op. 10
Variations on a theme by Schumann in F sharp minor, Op. 9
Variations on an Original Theme in D major, Op. 21, No. 1
Variations on a Hungarian Song in D major, Op. 21 No. 2
Waltzes (16), Op. 39
Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4
Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 (Complete)
Rhapsodies (2), Op. 79
Fantasies (7 piano pieces), Op. 116
Klavierstücke (8), Op. 76
Klavierstücke (6), Op. 118
Klavierstücke (4), Op. 119
Intermezzi (3), Op. 117
Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 Nos. 1-21 (complete)
with Jean Martinon (piano) for dances 11-21
Julius Katchen (piano)