Svjatoslav Richter in Prague

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"Svjatoslav Richter in Prague": Pianoforte Sonatas No. 3 in C Major, Opus 2, No. 3 (recorded in 1975); No. 7 in D Major, Opus 10, No. 3 (1959); No. 12 in A-flat Major, Opus 26 ( 1959); No. 1 7 in D Minor ("Tempest"), Opus 31, No. 2 (1965); No. 18 in E-flat Major, Opus 3 1, No. 3 (1965); No. 23 in F Minor ("Appassionato"), Opus 57 (1959); No. 27 in E Minor, Opus 90 (1965); No. 28 in A Major, Opus 101 (1986); No. 29 in B-flat Major (Hammerklavier), Opus 106; "Diabelli" Variations, Opus 120 (1986); and Sonata No. 3 1 in A-flat Major, Opus 110(1965). 4 CDs. Praga 354022-354025. ADD. ©1993, 1997. $34.97. Czech radio broadcasts distributed by Harmonia Mundi. HM 47x4. Program notes in English, French, and German by Pierre E. Barbier.

A glance at the Schwann Artists Catalog lists many columns of presently available Richter Beethoven CDs. Many of the entries are duplicate recordings published by competing distributors. It would take a CD scholar to ferret out the original recordings, let alone the unique discs from the duplications. However, a complete listing of Richter recordings past and present may be found at http://trovar.com/str/discs/beeth.html. In any case, the provenance of the present offering is clear enough. These are live performances (including lively coughing and aggravating applause) recorded in Prague from 1959 (Opus 57; Opus 10, no. 3; and Opus 26) to 1986 (the "Diabelli" Variations and Opus 101). In-between these outer dates, in 1965 Richter recorded Opus 31, nos. 2 and 3; Op. 90; and Op. 110; and in 1975 the Hammerklavierand Opus 2, no. 3.

Svjatoslav Richter was born in 1915 in Ukraine to musical parents: his mother was a relative of the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and his father was an organist. Svjatoslav, instructed by his father in the basics of music, amazingly taught himself the piano. It was not until he was twentytwo years old when he entered the Moscow Conservatory that he received his first formal instrumental training. His performance of Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata brought him widespread recognition in Russia as well as the friendship of the composer, several of whose later piano sonatas Richter debuted.

At a juried piano competition, one of the jurors - one who ought to know - commented on the young man's talent. "Richter is an extraordinary phenomenon," wrote Dmitri Shostakovich. "The enormity of his talent," the composer continued, "staggers and enraptures. All the phenomena of musical art are accessible to him." It may or may not be interesting to note that Richter himself was one of the jurors who awarded Van Cliburn the prize in the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition.

Richter, Shostakovich might have added, was a force of nature. It would be difficult to come up with another pianist of such sheer overwhelming power. I recall a performance of the Brahms second Concerto by Gina Bachauer and experiencing something of the same Olympian playing. But there really is no adequate comparison of any pianist to Richter. He is very much a nonpareil.

What is special about Richter is encapsulated in one word: intensity. There is a massive concentration here, an architect's sense of structure, a lordly seriousness, orchestral dynamics, a wild imagination that can take even his Promethean technique to its outer limits - and beyond.

Now, the question emerges: are these characteristics altogether appropriate for Beethoven? My answer to this would not very helpfully have to be "yes" and "maybe." Let me take two of these sonatas to illustrate the point.

Richter's performance of the Hammerklavier Sonata is surely one of the world's wonders. There is an inflexible integrity here, a fierce energy, a disdain, "of anything extraneous to musical substance," in the words of a Gramophone magazine review. The Richter discs to which the reviewer refers is EMIs Richter, un portrait, reviewed in Gramophone in the October 1992 issue. There is indeed, to quote further from this same reviewer, "a superhuman objectivity" to Richters "fierce, uncompromising intensity. …