Another memory of Julius, who broke his piano strings

The pianist John Humphreys has a delightful recollection for us of the brilliant Julius Katchen, who would have turned 90 this week:

My teacher Harold Rubens knew him well and heard one day from a friend that Katchen had just given a recital in Baltimore (or wherever) with the Brahms F minor Sonata on the programme.

Katchen sits down (always advisable when you have something serious to communicate) whacks the low F, breaks the string, gets up, shrugs and says to the audience: “So sorry folks, these things happen. Now what can I play of Brahms which doesn’t have the low F?……….ah, yes, the Paganini Variations!” Audience stunned.

A few weeks later Harold goes to hear him in Boston (or wherever). Exactly the same thing happens. Harold goes back stage: “What the hell are you up to, you son of a bitch?” Katchen: “Oh, it’s easy, you just beat the hell out of that low F, hope that it breaks and create a minor sensation by playing the Paganini!” Harold: “And if it doesn’t break?” Katchen: “No problem, I know the sonata well enough!”

He died at the age of 42 – tragic loss.

 

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  • In 1968 during my late teens I spent my vacations working at Decca and count myself fortunate in being present at Katchen’s recording of the Brahms F major Cello Sonata with Janos Starker in Kingsway Hall.

    Having finished recording, the duo decided to give a ‘concert performance’ to myself, producer David Harvey and sound engineer Kenneth Wilkinson who just set the tapes to run. Most of that performance was used on the disc – unforgettable.

    He was such a lovely person with an unbelievable obsession with the music of Brahms.

    • What an experience! If I had to live with just one integral set of the Brahms Violin and Piano sonatas it would be Suk/Katchen, which I initially chose largely (of course I also knew the artists were splendid ones) out of frugality: somehow the engineering folks at London/Decca managed to cram it all onto one LP. And so much for frugality: my old Dual turntable rebelled against the extreme side length and would not finish the sides so I had to replace it. “Most expensive recording I ever bought.” After years of reviewing for Fanfare I probably ended up with a few dozen sets on CD, but Suk/Katchen remained and remains a reference version, and the CD remastering opened up some of the compression involved in cutting those long, long LP sides.

    • I did not even know Katchen recorded chamber music and I thank you for making my life a little better today.

  • I will never forget his passionate performance of Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie filmed in 1967, an outstanding video given as bonus track to the Brendel DVD in EMI Classic Archive Series. Just amazing!

  • Plus ça change… Let’s be honest:
    – What are the chances of breaking a piano string at will?
    – Any current young virtuoso wouldn’t get away with that kind of shenanigan.

      • Me too. Coincidentally, a living Brahmsian I deeply admire is also a US expat in France: Nicholas Angelich.

    • Quite right Petros – also impossible to break a bass string but that’s the story that came down to me!

    • The strory of the string breaking is surely apocryphal. Anyway, in my experience snapping strings are almost always a result of a big humidity change (as when a piano is taken into a hall or house from a different environment), and then when one of them snaps, it’s not always in loud playing. I’ve had strings snap in such conditions when playing softly with the little finger. And for some unknown reason, every string I recall breaking has been with the little finger (either hand). This might warrant some research.

  • Wow! A “recollection” from a teacher who “heard from a friend” and then passed it on to a student which was then passed on to someone here is portrayed as real? This one, and the other post about him, do not have the “ring of truth” to them. Sorry.

    • Ah – but Harold (my teacher) heard Katchen repeat this ‘coup de theatre’ in the flesh! Plenty of stories about Harold Rubens to grace Norman’s pages…

  • Thank you, John Humphreys, for this tremendously entertaining story!
    Any further stories which you might care to share would be most welcome.
    Cheers….

  • For those who don’t already own the Katchen six CD set of the complete piano works of Brahms they need to know that this is the finest set of those pieces in existence. When I want to show off my stereo I play the final movement of the First Sonata. It’s like Mt. St. Helens blowing up! Unbelievable power and panache! If I’m not mistaken it was this sonata that Brahms played for Robert Schumann when they first met. A must have.

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