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Trawling for treasure

BILL NEWMAN seeks out Golden Age performers now reinstated on CD

BBC    BBCL 4052-2

BBC Legends - Richter (c) 2000 BBC Music


After Sviatoslav Richter's first piano recital at London's Royal Festival Hall -- Haydn and Prokofiev, if I remember correctly -- Sir Neville Cardus compared him unfavourably with Vladimir Horowitz. The doyen of critics, at the time no doubt bowled over by Horowitz's incomparable virtuosity in the early 50s, accepted no compromise in his attempted judgement of Richter's classically conceived performances of mid-18th century keyboard music, or his stylised approach to a composer-colleague's highly personal output with its strongly felt satirical content. This was not his concept of how the piano should sound.

Cardus, supreme in his writings on music and musicians, and still read today for his great authority and perception, died in 1975. Perhaps he was too much the critic and musicologist of an older performing generation who closely identified their associations with series of masterworks topical for in-depth discussion, but while his beloved Horowitz secluded himself, Richter captured everyone's attention by showing how refreshingly charasmatic he was with such music as the Liszt Sonata, Rachmaninov Preludes, or the Brahms B flat Concerto.

In every sense a developing musician -- live performances from several venues on disc show varied approaches to the same repertoire -- inner discipline governed a range of dynamics, phrases tinged with barely suggested rubati within selective spans of tempi forming a basic consistency of approach. Look at the cool, detached exterior of the performer and one gains little knowledge of the continuity that flows from within. Richter though, paid homage to his illustrious teacher Neuhaus for supplying the sonorous touches that transformed a fine performer into a great artist.

Turning to the 1960s Philips LP of early Beethoven Sonatas gives small indication of how his classical approach would change by the time of the Blythburgh Church Aldeburgh Festival event of June 1975. Opus 2, No 3 recaptures the scene of the young, daring composer posing bold demands on his own playing and the audience's unexpected response. Richter's control here is flexibly deployed to give utmost clarity to theme and counterpoint; note that timings for the first two movements are the same, suggesting careful attention to musical measures and markings, albeit with the absence of the first movement repeat. The Scherzo and Trio have a crispness of response, and playful right-hand thirds intermingle with passages of daring bravura in the bold final movement.

Richter's move to late Beethoven is astute with Bagatelles 1, 4 and 6 from the Opus 126 set. Calmness in repose in the first is awoken by devilish glee in No 4, while No 6 is the composer at his most songlike.

Questions always arise over Beethoven's supposedly faulty metronome in the celebrated Hammerklavier Sonata. Richter opts for the middle course, performing the work at a fastish speed that pays dividends in clearness of vision. He also carefully establishes a correct contrast between the first movement's Allegro and the second's Assai vivace with its fragmented legato statements, the Presto halfway bursting through the texture with meteoric velocity [listen -- track 9, 1:00-1:59].

The exploratory slow movement is a long cantilena of great beauty with some wonderfully sustained pedalling, but the Finale, instead of being treated as a vehicle for thunderous declamations and demonic passions, registers stepping stones of intrigues, mysterious undercurrents and overwhelming resolves.

This is Richter at his most magical and spellbinding, enticing his listeners along new voyages of discovery with the music's message foremost.


Copyright © 20 June 2001 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK







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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews