A cursory glance at the contents might lead one to think that the correct title should be “Sviatoslav Richter Live at Carnegie Hall plus Odds-and-Sods”, given that twelve of the discs derive from concerts given there during Winter 1960.
The story surrounding Sviatoslav Richter’s first appearances in America seems to be straightforward. After Stalin died in 1953 there was a gradual thaw in East-West relations that allowed some musicians to cross the Iron Curtain, led by David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels, who were received like conquering heroes, and Gilels made his famous remark: “If you think I’m good, wait until you hear Richter.’
Richter (1915-97) had been invited to the States on several occasions, but had apparently been ill or otherwise engaged, whereas Richter’s wife suggests in Bruno Monsaingeon’s great film Richter the Enigma that the Soviet authorities initially wouldn’t let him leave, whereas Richter said he was forced to go to America and was depressed while there.
His debut was at Orchestra Hall, Chicago (15 October 1960) where he played Brahms’s Second Concerto with Erich Leinsdorf conducting, which they recorded two days later for RCA Living Stereo and on October 19 he appeared at Carnegie Hall in a Beethoven recital. He would then programme Haydn, Ravel, Prokofiev, Debussy, Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov, most of which he had been touring in Russia with. He also played (as well as the Brahms) numerous other Concertos, sometimes two in the same concert. So apart from the sheer quality of the playing, the quantity was phenomenal. It is also worth remembering that Richter toured the US and Canada for almost three months and made three recordings, so this wasn’t just a few nights at Carnegie Hall.
Sony has arranged the discs in chronological order, so we start with Brahms 2. As with two other Russian giants live, Arthur Rubinstein (ICA) and Gilels (Tahra), Richter’s approach to tempo is fluid, without ever compromising momentum, the rubato is completely natural, rhythmic command and invention are absolute, he beautifully moulds and shades the melodic line and makes minimal use of the sustaining pedal. As you would expect Fritz Reiner’s CSO plays magnificently and Leinsdorf, although a little unyielding, is a sympathetic conductor.
Two weeks later Richter was in Boston, where he recorded Beethoven’s Concerto No.1 (C major) with Charles Munch. From the opening bars one knows that a great as opposed to a fine conductor is in charge. There is tremendous bite, attack (sforzandos are in place) and the Boston strings and woodwinds are wonderful. Richter’s approach is classically restrained, but too often he sounds on auto-pilot and I found the accompaniment more interesting. Twenty-eight years later Richter played this Concerto live with Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestra of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. The conducting and playing are no more than adequate. The opening movement is lethargic, the Largo is reasonably limpid, but for all its rhythmic finesse, the finale lacks drive and panache. This disc, the final one, also includes uncompromising performances of Chopin Studies. And CD 17 embraces 'late' accounts of Brahms's First Sonata and pieces by Liszt.
Yet at Carnegie Hall on 9 October 1960 Richter played quite magnificently five early- and middle-period Beethoven Sonatas. Here the sense of command, logic, spirituality, concentration and humanity are inspirational, even intimidating. Time and again one hears an inner-part revealed, or a slight hesitation, and tempo, dynamic or rhythmic variations that completely change the shape of a phrase, without sacrificing the line. The concert ended with a massively uncompromising account of the ‘Appassionata’ that seethes with power and brings the house down. There are four encores, by Schubert, Schumann and Chopin, the last of which is a coruscating performance of the latter’s ‘Revolutionary’ Study (Opus 10/12). As an adjunct to this recital there was an RCA LP of Opuses 26 ('Funeral March') and 57 ('Appassionata'), where the timings for each movement are different to the concert, the sound is far better, but the tension and excitement of the live event is – inevitably – absent.
With regard to the transfer of the concert, a first-label British RCA LP was used for comparison and the piano now sounds as though a veil has been thrown over it, although the bass definition has been improved. There are also passages with slight wow and flutter, which is irritating when pitch correction software is available. It may be that the Carnegie Hall tapes were compromised, but a touch more harmonic balancing/equalisation would not have gone amiss.
Five days later Richter gave a Prokofiev programme that included well-nigh definitive readings of the Sixth and Eighth Sonatas (it is worth bearing in mind that the composer had died only in 1953 and concerts devoted to his music were as rare as hen’s teeth) while on 25 October he played Haydn, Schumann and Debussy. Haydn’s C-major Sonata has delightfully light and clean finger-work (and all repeats) and every aspect of Schumann’s quixotic genius is captured in three of the Noveletten. The second-half is devoted to ridiculously good Debussy-playing. Suite bergamasque opens with a ‘Prelude’ marked Moderato (tempo rubato) and that is exactly what you get, replete with superb pedal control, a glowing tonal palette and control of micro-dynamics. The second-movement Andantino is more like an Allegro assai, but the dance element and humour are all there and Richter isn’t afraid to slow for what might be termed the Trio. ‘Clair de lune’ is very slow and – as marked – there are no tempo changes for the different sections. The ‘Passepied’ might be called Debussy’s take on Bach: here the rhythm bounces and the timing of the final three chords is immaculate. After which there are rapt, exquisitely detailed recreations of Images and L’Isle joyeuse, plus three encores.
However, the standard of the transfers has to be seriously questioned, in that some in the audience sound as though they are dying of consumption. I contacted Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical, a respected re-mastering/audio restoration engineer and asked him whether much of the coughing could be removed. “Yes, modern restoration software can be very effective in removing all kinds of unwanted noises, including coughs and sneezes. I wouldn't suggest it can cure them all, and sometimes the music gets in the way to an extent that the frequency overlap would make it very difficult to excise specific coughs, but in my experience there are few recordings where the vast majority of coughs cannot be either removed or significantly suppressed. Piano music may also not be the easiest to treat - it's certainly a lot easier to get a cough out of a long, sustained chord than a run of percussive notes.”
The concert of 28 October is remarkable. In the second half Richter played Rachmaninov Preludes and while he said he felt depressed in America, the volatile power of the playing belongs to a different world. Richter was noted for his control and intellectual command, but here he gets completely carried away, smashing out Opus 23/2 without the tone deteriorating, weaving a web of legato, cantabile sound in Opus 23/4 that brings a lump to the throat, making Opus 23/5 sound like a march and polonaise at a fast tempo and persuading the listener that the arpeggios in Opus 23/7 are a perpetuum mobile.
When one turns to the two December concerts from respectively Carnegie Hall and the Mosque Theatre, New York, the sound improves enormously, which is hardly surprising given that a RCA Living Stereo team was on hand. RCA at the time only issued one LP of highlights (LSC 2611) but Sony has created four LP sleeves, none of which – apart from the basic design and number – exist. Compared to a first-label American LP the transfer is just about acceptable, but Richter’s rich tonal palette, unique timbre and the sheer presence of the piano are only partially realised. Sony boasts that it uses 24bit/96kHz files to produce these compressed 16bit discs, but so the audiophiles amongst us can judge the damage – if any – done by this, perhaps Sony should push the boat out and provide high-resolution downloads?
This set is essential listening for all lovers of great pianism and, more importantly, interpretation. Come the proverbial desert-island then this listener would have to decide between Horowitz, Solomon and Richter – and if you want to know why the latter then listen to the last four tracks on CD 15: they say it all.