Remembering Julius, a pianist cut short at 42

Remembering Julius, a pianist cut short at 42


norman lebrecht

April 26, 2019

It will be half a century on April 29 since the death from cancer of the Paris-based American pianist, Julius Katchen.

Renowned for his Brahms, Katchen made his fortune from recording Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Mantovani’s orchestra. He recorded extensively for Decca, mostly with the LSO.

Victor Hochhauser told me of a night he spent in Paris seaching for Sviatoslav Richter, who had given everyone the slip after a concert. After wandering through all his known haunts he heard the sound of four hands at a piano coming from an open window. It was Katchen’s home. Richter had heard him play and just walked in.


UPDATE: Go on, break a string



  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Julius Katchen was the Brahms specialist par excellence. His CD-box of Brahms’ solo piano works is a benchmark.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Possibly the greatest American pianist along with Stephen Kovacevich (one should never forget him, who was still going strong a few years ago when I last saw him).

    • Greg Bottini says:

      William Kapell? Rosalyn Tureck? Serkin, father and son? Leon Fleisher? Abbey Simon? Charles Rosen? Raymond Lewenthal? Richard Goode?
      Not to demean Katchen or Kovacevich, but my personal opinion is that any of these pianists are at least the equal of K or K.

      • fflambeau says:

        Don’t forget the likes of Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Van Cliburn and Garrick Ohlson. There are/were many others too. Bernstein was an amazing pianist too.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Did Katchen have many students? I seem to recall that the fine French pianist, Pascal Rogé, studied with him.

  • Michael Turner says:

    I love his recordings of the Ravel Piano Concertos and Prokofiev’s third. The remake of Rhapsody in Blue (with Kertesz and the LSO) is not the most idiomatic but I still love it nevertheless.

  • Novagerio says:

    His Brahms was unparalleled, and still is to this day.

  • Christopher Storey says:

    A great and much lamented pianist who died far, far too young, magical in brahms and in much else besides, as youtube now reveals. I never realised he made his name with Mantovani and Gershwin !!

  • Steven van Staden says:

    In my opinion the playing is hard and heavy-handed, and often too fast. I couldn’t help yearning for Curzon’s Brahms. I used to have these recordings on LPs as a child and the impression I had then remains.

  • Yossel says:

    He may have been Paris-based, but I remember, as a seventeen year-old in the summer of 1965, spotting him in the Times Square Subway Station and asking for his autograph. He couldn’t have been nicer.

    • doremi says:

      True.I heard tha the lived in London and met the pianists of the time/Barenboim,Ashkenazy..etc

  • Caravaggio says:

    One of the greats for sure. A little known piece of trivia is that Katchen was among the many musicians who played/participated in the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) Rock & Roll Circus organized by The Rolling Stones back in the late ’60s. Brian Jones introduced Katchen to the audience. No idea what Katchen played or if his segment made it to film.

    • Bouchendhomme says:

      Hello Caravagio,

      Perhaps you have had the following information in the meantime. Sorry then to be too late.

      A DVD (De Luxe Edition (contains perfect-bound 42 page-book) of the Rolling Stones Circus concert of 11 December 1968 was released some time ago, in which Julius Katchen participated by playing Falla’s Danse du Feu and the first movement of Mozart’s sonata in C major.

      How wonderful it is to be among the admirers of this unforgettable artist and charismatic personality and to have the happiness of being able to listen to his recordings now and always.

      JK for ever

  • Petros Linardos says:

    A wonderful pianist, musician and intellectual, Julius Katchen richly deserves to be remembered.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Also his recording of Brahms’ piano concerto nr 2 with the London Symphony Orchestra sets the standard for these pieces. Especially impressive is Katchen’s ability to make gradual distinctions between thematic material and accompaniment figures so that the flow of the music is not hindered.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Funny, Victor Hochhauser’s story appears in John Culshaw’s book, ‘Getting the Record Straight’ only there I believe it was Culshaw who found Richter.

  • Quintus Beckmesser says:

    He played the ‘Emperor’ concerto at the first concert I ever went to, in the Festival Hall in 1958. The conductor was Samuel Rosenheim, whom I never came across again.

  • Westfan says:

    I grew up in the town in NJ where Julius Katchen’s parents lived, his father was a lawyer who represented fired government workers at Ft Monmouth who were victims of the McCarthy era. It was a terrible time. I believe his mother was his first piano teacher. They were acquaintances of my parents. I remember hearing Julius in recital in Red Bank, too young to appreciate his playing, unfortunately. Later I had a wonderful LP
    recording of his Brahms Handel and Paganini Variations. Wonderful stuff.

    • Bouchendhomme says:

      November 29, 2019
      It is not his mother but his grandmother Rose Svet, a former teacher at the Warsaw Conservatory, who was his only teacher from his 5th to 14th year. His grandfather, Mandel Svet taught the theoretical part (composition, harmony, etc.) and also the violin.

  • Such a beautiful artist, musician and pianist. His recordings are a rich legacy and his name is forever etched in the history of pianists. A formidable talent – a tremendous loss.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Ned Rorem’s diary has good goss on JK.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Norman. For me, Julis Katchen was perhaps the greatest interpreter of Brahms who ever lived. His complete recordings of Brahms’ solo works as well as much of the chamber music and the two concerti are still available on CD, fortunately.

    I enjoyed very much reading the chapter devoted to him by Gary Graffman in his book, “I Really Should Be Practicing”.

  • Oops … Julius, not Julis!

  • Anon says:

    The best Brahms sonatas with Joseph Suk….

  • M McAlpine says:

    It was Katchen who introduced me to classical music. The first LP I bought was of his Tchaikovsky concerto and Liszt Hungarian Fantasy . Played for all they were worth. I think comparisons are pointless. His early death was a sad loss.

    • piano lover says:

      The first LPs I bought were the brahms set -released as individual Lps-the first one:Brahms Sonata n°3-…performance of a life time.

  • VIolinaccordion says:

    Liszt 1/2 and dazzling Mephisto waltz.

    With Kertesz

  • Esther Cavett says:

    [David Boxwell]===Ned Rorem’s diary has good goss on JK.

    Any chance you could share some of this gossip, David ? Thanks