Julius Katchen’s grandparents taught music at conservatories in Warsaw and Moscow, whilst his mother was a pupil of Isidor Philipp at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. His father was an amateur violinist, and with so much music in the home, young Julius received all his musical tuition from his family. At the age of ten he made his public debut in Newark playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466. A year later he played the same concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy at the Philadelphia Academy of Music and a month later repeated the performance in Carnegie Hall, this time with John Barbirolli conducting. At twelve Katchen gave his New York recital debut at the Town Hall and in July 1939 played the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 at Lewisohn Stadium with the New York Philharmonic and Efrem Kurtz.
Katchen was leading the life of a musical prodigy, who was taught not only music but all academic studies at home. Fortunately, when he was fourteen his father decided to enrol him in high school and stop his public performances. From high school Katchen went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1946 with a degree in philosophy. He had also studied English literature at Haverford and whilst at college he had some piano lessons from David Saperton. In the midst of his college studies, in December 1944, Katchen gave a recital at Carnegie Hall and two years later was one of five Americans offered a fellowship by the French government.
Arriving in Paris in the autumn of 1946 Katchen was asked to play in a concert organised by UNESCO. His performance of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto was broadcast and three days later he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 whilst a week later, the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 followed. He played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Nice Opera House and the following February gave his recital debut in Paris; in April 1947 he played with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and in May was collaborating with Otto Klemperer. In the spring of 1947 Katchen played in nine European capitals and at the end of the year began a tour of America. From then on he made his home in Paris, playing frequently in Europe but less often in America.
Katchen’s regular tours covered all six continents, his unlimited stamina and ambition leading him to give more than one hundred concerts per season. He played much music by the Russian virtuoso school as well as Beethoven and Brahms. In April 1964 Katchen played the complete solo music of Brahms in four recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, repeating the cycle in Cambridge (England), New York, Berlin, and Amsterdam. He was fond of big programmes and is known to have played three piano concertos in one concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall (Beethoven’s No. 3, Brahms’s No. 2 and Rachmaninov’s No. 2). In his early years Katchen played many of the great Russian concertos by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov and solo works such as Balakirev’s Islamey and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
His technique was chrome-plated and invincible, and (no doubt influenced by the other young Americans of the time) during the 1950s Katchen could give powerfully brilliant performances that lacked any kind of poetry and delivered little musicality whilst he strove for speed beyond anything else. Yet later in his career he was noted for his interpretations of the great Classical masterworks such as Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat D. 960 and Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations Op. 120 which he carefully studied from a philosophical viewpoint. Toward the end of his life Katchen began to find the depths in the music of Brahms, and if he had not died at the early age of forty-two from cancer, he may have developed musically into a more profound interpreter. However, there is no denying his popularity with audiences, and many of his large number of recordings were best-sellers. American composer Ned Rorem composed his Piano Sonata No. 2 for Katchen, who gave the première in Paris in 1952.
Katchen made all of his records for Decca and although his career was cut short, he still managed to record a great deal in the twenty years between 1949 and 1969. He was apparently the first artist to appear on a solo piano LP recording, with his performance of Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5. In addition to the complete piano music by Brahms recorded in the 1960s, Katchen also recorded the violin sonatas with Josef Suk, and the piano trios with Suk and János Starker. All five concertos of Beethoven were recorded, plus the Choral Fantasy Op. 80 and Rondo in B flat WoO 6 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Piero Gamba. Katchen has a particularly good partnership with Gamba, and the Concerto No. 4 is probably the highlight of the series, containing a wonderful dialogue in the slow movement, and the slow movement of the C minor concerto shows how Katchen could hold an audience spell-bound with his intimate sound. Three Mozart concertos were also recorded, including the D minor K. 466 with which Katchen made his debut. Benjamin Britten requested that Katchen be the soloist in his recording of Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra, whilst other twentieth century concertante works recorded include both concertos by Ravel, Bartók’s Concerto No. 3, Gershwin’s Concerto in F and his Rhapsody in Blue, and Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Song Op. 25. Of the Romantic concertos, Katchen recorded both by Liszt, both by Brahms, Tchaikovsky’s No. 1, Rachmaninov’s No. 2 and his Paganini Rhapsody, Prokofiev’s No. 3, and the Piano Concertos in A minor by both Grieg and Schumann. Katchen recorded Rorem’s Piano Sonata No. 2 around the time he gave the première in the early 1950s.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).