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Classic Choice: the Master Recordings


In 1960 Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97) took the West by storm, playing first in Finland, then the United States. Other post-war Soviets had preceded him - Malinin, Gilels, Bashkirov, Ashkenazy, Zhukov, Lazar Berman. But none with quite the same impact. The following pre-Prom summer he came to London, giving three recitals at the Royal Festival Hall and two concerto evenings at the Royal Albert. Desmond Shawe-Taylor of the Sunday Times found him an "enigma": "the impact of Sviatoslav Richter on London, so far, has been great, but less than was expected: less, shall we say, than that of Major Gagarin. There have been dissenting voices ... No one could be less like the conventional idea of a keyboard virtuoso. Richter creates a solitude around him as he plays. Intense concentration seems to leave him unaware of the presence of an audience. So rapt is he in this intimate communion with himself and his chosen composer that at times he seems almost to be practising... In his style there is little panache, nothing sumptuous, hardly a trace of the self-intoxicated flourish that commonly accompanies a bravura technique. This reserve is not invariably a merit, for there are kinds of music, not always meretricious, in which a frank delight in brilliance, a lavish scattering of jewels, an open sharing of pleasure between executant and listener are all part of the game..."

If the recitals were private, philosophical affairs, apparently wanting in "pianistic blood and thunder and the rampaging of a Klaviertiger," the concerto appearances were something else. Always the adventurer, never content with the merely routine, ever disdainful of the box office, Sviatoslav wooed his public with Liszt. But he wowed them with Dvorak.

Richter's London account was only the fifth occasion he'd played the G minor work before an audience. His definitive studio recording of the uncut 1876-78 Urtext appeared nearly two decades later, launched by HMV in both stereo and their then flagship SQ quadraphonic format. Newly re-mastered, the performance remains as authoritatively grand, spacious and spellbinding as ever, with Carlos Kleiber in stratospherically charismatic attendance. Richter's commitment is a lesson in dedication and persuasion, his gradation of touch a miracle of refinement, his phrasing and timing a model of the art, his slow movement a litany of faded dreams and Bohemian mists. "One of the most outstanding [releases] of the year if not the decade," I originally suggested (Records & Recording, October 1977). I was wrong. Of the century, I should have said.

The CD incarnation couples another Richter classic - his Paris Wanderer Fantasy. To some this is a dry, brisk reading; to others an incomparably cogent justification (belying its fragmented session history) of one of the most far-reaching solo piano visions of the 19th century, recorded with an immediacy that has you virtually inside the instrument if not beneath the pedals. The Wanderer was the first Schubert work Richter learnt, as a student of Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatoire (1937-44). "It was only very late in life that I succeeded in acquiring great freedom [with it]. One must not play it academically; one has to take risks, as with scarcely any other work" ("Sviatoslav Richter in Conversation [with Jürgen Meyer-Josten, Head of Music, Bavarian Radio, Munich]" © CF Peters Frankfurt 1982, translated John Nowell, Recorded Sound No 84 © British Library July 1983).

Classic Choice - The studio sessions

Dvorak: Piano Concerto in G minor, Op 33

18'34"/8'53"/11'05" - TT: 38'32"
Bavarian State Orch Munich/Carlos Kleiber
Recorded: 18-21 June 1976. Venue: Burgerbraukeller, Munich
Producer: John Mordler. Balance Engineer: Ernst Rothe

Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy in C, D760

5'46"/6'51"/4'34"/3'34' - TT: 20'45"
Recorded: 11-13, 16, 18 February, 11 April 1963.
Venue: Salle Wagram, Paris
Producer: Peter Andry. Balance Engineer: Paul Vavasseur

Great Recordings of the Century
EMI Classics 5 66895 2
ADD stereo
Digital mastering: Andrew Walter, Abbey Road Studios
Liner notes: Bryce Morrison


Reference File - The concert performances

LSO/Kyril Kondrashin. 17'22"/9'15"/9'48" - TT: 36'25"

Royal Albert Hall, London 16 July 1961
Intaglio INCD 7511 ADD mono
Producer, Balance Engineer? Liner notes: unsigned

Prague SO/Vaclav Smetacek. 18'22"/9'33"/10'47" - TT: 38'42"

[Venue?], Prague 2 June 1966; Czech Radio broadcast.
Praga/Harmonia Mundi International PR 256001 ADD mono
Producer, Balance Engineer? Liner notes: Pierre E. Barbier


"I learnt it in Dvorak's original version simply because that is one of my principles: to play works in their original versions and to shun arrangements of them."

© Ates Orga 1999

Pianos & Pianists