Starting out on the violin, like many other violists, Katims moved to the larger instrument in order to become fluent in the alto clef and furnish his skills for conducting. Violist and conductor Léon Barzin, who taught him conducting, encouraged him by saying: ‘There are 200 other violinists just as good in New York…if you turn to the viola, you can become one of far fewer competent viola players.’ Katims succeeded in carving out a career on the viola, playing in quartets and for WOR Radio, New York; having heard his broadcasts, Arturo Toscanini invited Katims to join his NBC Symphony Orchestra without audition. He also recorded quintet material as second violist with the Budapest Quartet, and founded the New York Quartet with Mieczysław Horszowski. This ensemble had works written for it by Copland and Martinů and its success is marked by a number of recordings.
From around 1954 onwards Katims was known principally as a conductor, although he occasionally made solo appearances with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, including a filmed performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with violinist Henryk Szeryng.
Katims’s recordings, here mainly in the context of chamber-music repertoire, reveal a solid technique and musicianship rather than a sparkling individual artistic personality. Accordingly, his 1954 Schumann Piano Quartet is clean and tidy, with a sound typical of its era but largely free of any conspicuous personal features. There is very little in the way of portamento and his is a moderately-paced vibrato. The whole enterprise has a slightly rough-hewn edge by today’s standards, but is otherwise unpretentious and straightforward. The 1946–1947 Debussy Trio performance is not dissimilar, the superficial prettiness of this piece being appropriately conveyed (although it is actually the rather tremulous flute vibrato that dates this recording and creates its personality, rather than Katims’s well-blended viola playing).
More interesting (and indeed revealing) are the three other items in this small selection. Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano (1951) are relatively little known, and evidence a powerful and sensitive performance. In the first Rhapsody, Katims’s playing (which has a strong and cello-like quality in the more tumultuous sections) is a conspicuous element, although the performance has shortcomings including an ill-coordinated ending. The second Rhapsody—Debussy-esque in the piano at the start, opening out into passages reminiscent of Moeran or Finzi—is beautifully-paced between all three players, and shows a depth of sensitivity in Katims that is less evident in the works listed above.
His Schubert Quintet in C with a glittering line-up at the 1952 Prades Festival is one of Katims’s most famous recordings. In spite of some roughness and blemishes, this is a powerfully-charged performance as befits the greatness of its participants. Chamber music performances by solo players are not invariably successful (see the entries in this volume on Yo-Yo Ma and Leonid Kogan) and sometimes hint at a dismissive approach to such repertoire. This is not the case here, and though technically imperfect, the recording is one of the most intense performances of this seminal work on record, Katims integrating seamlessly with the others and proving of equal artistic worth. The Bloch Suite (1975) demonstrates his strengths as a solo artist. Performances of Bloch’s music can all too often sound over-blown and ludicrously ‘heart on sleeve’, but here Katims maintains a degree of restraint whilst articulating the dramatic changes appropriately and with impressive technical control.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)