Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Concerto No. 1
Ballade No. 3
Vogel als Prophet
Julius Katchen (pn); Rudolf Kempe, cond; BBC SO
ICA 5048 (76:10) Live: London
Katchen interview with John Amis
This valuable release nicely complements two existing live Katchen accounts of the Brahms concerto, adding a late one, from near the end of his tragically short life, to an early one with Ernest Bour at Southwest German Radio in 1951 (so-so sound on Urania), and a mid-career one with Franz Konwitschny at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1960 (excellent sound on Weitblick).
The 1967 performance is vintage Katchen in its bigness of conception, mercurial reflexes, and expressive fullness and generosity, with that distinctive metallic glint to his piano tone. His interpretation didn’t change very much over the years; all the live performances, like the Decca recording with Monteux and the LSO, share the imperious shaping of the long line in the first solo entry, the eagle-like swooping down on the lyrical second theme, and the amazing reflexes in the development, turning on a dime from high-speed double octaves to sparkling
arpeggios. Equally distinctive are the rich bronzed sculpting of the contrapuntal lines in the Adagio, and the passionate urgency of the second theme (B Minor–F?-Minor, bars 37 ff.). After a rather rough-and-tumble start (much more poised in Leipzig seven years earlier), the finale quickly finds its groove, and the central episode (B?-Major–Minor) has great finesse and delicacy. The final stages (from the recapitulation of the second theme, Rehearsal G ff.) summon an irrepressible mounting excitement, culminating in a final cadenza of thrilling abandon. Kempe’s conducting is a major plus, in its typical distinctive grace, lightness of touch (always airborne, even in the heaviest textures), and rich subtlety of shading, inspiring a fine-tuned response from the BBC orchestra.
The fillers are live radio recordings made in the BBC’s studios without an audience. They are consistently riveting, from the massive yet sharply chiseled Chopin ballade to an astonishing no-holds-barred assault on the
—indeed verging on reckless, considering which his level of accuracy is phenomenally impressive. A wonderfully elastic, long-breathed
Vogel als Prophet
provides a welcome respite before
which he fairly burns through, taking no prisoners—perhaps a little short on local color, but terrifically exciting.
In the bonus interview (BBC, December 1967), the man comes over very much like his pianistic persona: fast-paced, energetic, and formidably articulate, in cultured Anglo-American tones long vanished. No audible sign at this stage of any debilitation from the cancer that was to end his life in little more than a year; indeed the BBC’s John Amis has difficulty getting a word in edgeways. Katchen ranges far and wide on Mozart playing and conductors (interestingly, from the perspective of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic listener, rather than that of the professional pianist), as well as reminiscences of his first encounter, as a teenager, with the music of Brahms.
The sound is consistently good for its time and provenance, and ICA’s transfers and production values are of a high standard. This marvelous new label (successor to the late lamented BBC Legends) is a class act, and I wish it a long life. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Boyd Pomeroy
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