BBC Legends – Sviatoslav Richter

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Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546

Sviatoslav Richter (piano)

English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Britten

From the Aldeburgh Festival – K482 and K546 recorded on 13 June 1967 at Snape Maltings; K595 recorded on 16 June 1965 in Blythburgh Church

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: March 2007
BBCL 4206-2
Duration: 76 minutes

Documents of Sviatoslav Richter’s art are always treasurable, but these perhaps more than most. This BBC Legends release gives evidence of the close relationship enjoyed by Richter and Benjamin Britten when at Aldeburgh. The performance of the E flat concerto even includes Britten’s cadenzas.

Richter’s Mozart is no tickled, prissy affair. The E flat concerto is one of the more big-boned ones. As an example of Richter’s approach, try his huge chords around 3’52” in the first movement, matched by the English Chamber Orchestra’s almost ‘Grimes’-like blackness of string tone. This was clearly an occasion where a meeting of minds led to extraordinary results. Britten relishes Mozart’s play with dissonance, almost daring Richter to match him (tuttis show little evidence of restraint). As to Richter, there are some wrong notes, but it is all part of the occasion.

Britten’s first-movement cadenza is stunning. It pays no heed to the range of Mozart’s piano, or the limitations of his harmonic vocabulary, for that matter. Despite all this (or perhaps because of it), it is gripping from first to last. One can almost hear Richter relishing the audacity of it all as Britten explores regions Mozart could only dream of. A pity Britten is very slightly behind on the orchestra’s reappearance, for the movement as a whole positively blazes.

The slow movement contains some miraculous wind playing (we are left to guess who the players may be…). Chris de Souza in his booklet note points out how Richter and Britten gradually slow down over the course of the movement’s Variations, and it is true the sense of communion with Mozart increases as the movement progresses. The finale has plenty of life. Although there is some blurring of internal orchestral detail by the acoustic and the occasional over-emphasis by Richter, this is in many ways an unforgettable account, with Richter’s fingers sizzling in their dexterity.

In K482 my library version of this work remains Ashkenazy with the Philharmonia on Decca, but this live Richter is an essential shelf-fellow and a complement to his own 1979 commercial recording with Muti (also Philharmonia, on EMI); this earlier live account has something very special about it.

Mozart’s last concerto was recorded a couple of years earlier on Richter’s second visit to Britten’s festival. Britten prepares for his soloist’s entrance wonderfully – there is almost a feeling of the operatic preamble about this. But then Richter jumps a phrase in the first solo entry (so he is human!) before going on to give as warm-hearted an account as one is likely to hear. His slip does not seem to worry him unduly; as the movement progresses the relaxation of a Suffolk summer seems to penetrate the music’s core. The cadenza (Mozart’s, this time) is all one could wish: dramatic, tender and showy in turns, with a right-hand trill late on to die for. If Brendel (with Neville Marriner conducting) articulated the two-voice imitation right at the end with a greater degree of cleanliness, Richter nevertheless is gripping from start to finish.

The solo opening of the slow movement once more reveals the pianist’s communion with Mozart. It is as rapt as can be, with Britten and the ECO matching him (the texture might be rather too full for some, in these ‘historically informed’ times). There is magic a-plenty here, with Richter at his most delicate. He is daring in his spacious speed; some wind entrances could be tidier, it must be admitted, but that is after all part of the live experience… The finale has a certain determination about it (no tripping in the fields here!), lending it an intensity one does not always associate it with. In keeping with this approach, Richter’s account of the cadenza is huge, containing real angst.

Nice to hear the C minor Adagio and Fugue for string orchestra, too. Britten is unashamedly dramatic in his approach, with lower strings lumbering around the depths during the Adagio. And lumber they do, too, at the outset of the Fugue. This is gritty, dark stuff, with neither Mozart nor Britten intending to let any light through.

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