I was primarily interested here in the two Brahms concertos, given Katchen's fame as a Brahms player. The English had a special liking for Katchen, and Decca has kept many of his recordings in the catalog, on and off again, for forty years. I should show my hand in advance: I have never been a particular fan and don't collect Katchen's performances. In this case I found, as I usually do, a big technique combined with a rather settled temperament and no great insight into either work. To take the Concerto #2 since it was of the most interest to me, Katchen resembles Emanuel Ax in his straightforward reading; te tone is big, as is the approach. But to me this huge, heroic work demands the kind of passionate attack one hears from Richter, Pollini, Serkin, and Fleisher, and when an interpretation becomes transcendent, there's a great conductor in total synch with the soloist, as with Barenboim and Barbirolli. Katchen was unfortunate to be paired with the pedestrian Ferencsik, who takes no special interest in the proceedings.
In Concerto #1 the conductor is the much better Pierre Monteux with the LSO, and one immediately hears the difference in the gripping introduction that Monteux evokes, memorable for having so much power and musicalaity without becoming ponderous, always a temptation in this overweening work. The young Brahms was trying desperately to sound great, but since in reality he was great, there's no need for conductors to belabor the point. Monteux doesn't, and I would rank his melifluous orchestral work with Szell's for Curzon and Fleisher or Barbirolli's for Barenboim. As in the Second Concerto, Katchen is a bit prosaic and straightforward, but he cathces fire more often, and his massive technique is well suited to compete with the thick, churning orchestral activity around him. One woul never mistake Katchen for Curzon, Serkin, Fleisher, Pollini, or other masters, but he acquits himself well, especially in the rousing finale. At 57 min., the reading is only a minute slower than the swift Fleisher-Szell.
the main filler in this import twofer (now the only one in print of these works from Katchen) is the Schumann concerto with Kertesz and the Israel Phil. Their performance is fairly startling by the way it charges ahead, avoiding any temptation to sound overly poetic or fussy. Is this because Katchen had no particular feeling for the work or becasue this is what he wanted to say? I can't quite tell. I liked the fact that this reading has no mannerisms whatever, and Katchen's big technique allows him to make some noble sounds. If such an approach appeals to you, this swift reading will be right for you; I just wonder if Katchen-Kertesz aren't railroading Schumann a bit.