BBC Legends – Sviatoslav Richter

0 of 5 stars

Papillons, Op.2
Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op.92
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Sviatoslav Richter (piano)

English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Britten [Schumann, Op.92]

Recorded on 27 January 1963 in the Royal Festival Hall, London [Papillons]; 16 June 1965 in Blythburgh Church (Aldeburgh Festival) [Schumann, Op.92]; and on 20 June 1964 in the Parish Church (Aldeburgh Festival)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: October 2006
BBCL 4196-2
Duration: 78 minutes

You might think there was enough live Richter out there, but such is the power of this great musician there is still room for something as exceptional as this release.

Papillons begins with a degree of freedom that is almost unheard of today, the rubato and changes of dynamics, rhythm and touch are myriad without ever compromising the integrity of the music. In the ensuing march-like section Richter is – conversely – very strict and martial, the tone is totally centred, exact and uncompromising. All of the qualities found in these opening sections are to be found in the rest of the work, every fantastic turn, every flight of quixotic fantasy is perfectly captured: no finer account of the work exists. Exactly the same can be said of the Introduction and Allegro, in which Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra provide brilliant support.

Richter’s Schubert has always been controversial, especially in the first and slow movements of the sonatas and here he doesn’t disappoint. Molto moderato and Andante sostenuto both become adagio and yet somehow he gets away with it! In the first movement the slight speeding for the second subject, the use of rhythmic and tempo variation and the limited dynamic range help. But ultimately it comes down to a profound sense of spirituality and timelessness that holds you almost against your will. As in Solomon’s massively slow and masterly account of the Adagio e sostenuto of the ‘Hammerklavier’, you feel that this is what the composer intended. This approach to Schubert can go disastrously wrong; Lazar Berman used a similar tempo in his Melodiya recording (which EMI issued) and the whole thing became a moribund mess, totally devoid of motion and emotion, because he lacked Richter’s conviction and concentration.

The slow movement is similar, but here there is no tempo change in the second subject and no sense of song; rather there is the same sense of one note moving to another with total inevitability and the final bars are a masterclass in the art of balancing the hands, tonal colouring and dynamic shading. Whether it is what Schubert intended is – to put it mildly – open to question, yet it is transfixing in its power and on repeated hearing it grows ever more natural.

Richter’s approach to the first two movements does also run the risk of completely unbalancing the work. Commentators have often questioned whether the last two movements carry the same weight and power, and even those players who take a more conventional approach fail to convince the listener of the work’s unity. Richter is certainly fast in the scherzo and slow in the trio, but there is also a sense of violence in the phrasing and pointing. The finale is propelled with enormous force, with no great tempo changes, and there is a sense of quiet inevitability and some exceptionally sophisticated pedalling and rubato. More importantly the atmosphere of the first two movements can still be felt: it pervades every note, such is the power of Sviatoslav Richter, the greatest of pianists.

Sound-wise everything is fine, the Introduction and Allegro is of studio quality with a real sense of presence and acoustic and there is only occasional, very minor, ‘wow and flutter’ in Papillons (which is in mono). The Schubert lacks extension in terms of dynamic range, but is otherwise very lifelike. Understandably, given the quality of the playing, there is virtually no audience noise.

A major release. There are other Richter versions of the solo piano works to be had on numerous labels and from different dates, but even if you have them I’m afraid you need this one as well.

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