Sviatoslav Richter’s Boston Debut – Beethoven & Brahms with Boston Symphony Orchestra/Munch [West Hill Radio Archives]

0 of 5 stars

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Sviatoslav Richter (piano)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch

Recorded 1 November 1960 in Symphony Hall, Boston

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2011
WHRA-6035 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 37 minutes



This Pension Fund Benefit Concert introduced the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s audience to Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97) who in 1960 was making his first appearances in the United States. The matinee opened with the Overture to Beethoven’s only attempt at ballet music, Charles Munch leading a crisp bordering-on-brutal account played with discipline and offering a particular kind of exhilaration.

Five years had elapsed since Emil Gilels first played in America, paving the way for Richter’s emergence with the much-quoted, “if you think I’m good wait until you hear Richter.” Impresario Sol Hurok brokered a deal between the US State Department and the Soviet Ministry of Culture to bring Richter to the States. Three weeks before Boston, Richter had played Brahms No.2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf (who was replacing Fritz Reiner) and they had recorded it for RCA – and then he gave five recitals in Carnegie Hall.

In Beethoven’s C major Piano Concerto Munch now conjures a lighter sound from the BSO, the string-players’ bows on tiptoe, as befits Beethoven’s pianissimo opening gambit and is less militaristic in fortissimos than in the previous Overture. Indeed this is a noble and spacious version, Richter classical, shapely and poised, working within the orchestra rather than trying to outshine it; any gruffness or top-end dynamics come from the BSO. Enshrined within Richter’s diffidence is great musicianship, the listener hanging on his every nuance, and Munch is a sympathetic collaborator. Richter ostensibly plays the longest and most-diverse of Beethoven’s three first-movement cadenzas, save that he trims it by a couple of minutes! WHRA’s editing brings us the Largo a little too soon – but it is a thing of rapt beauty: meditative, conversational and searching – and the finale retains Richter’s poise and delicacy without compromising impetus, the ‘jazzy’ episode given with delight and wit. Any flourishes and skirls come from the orchestra. On his first appearance in Symphony Hall, Bostonians seemed impressed with Richter’s retiring yet compelling approach, for cheering and foot-stomping inform the audience’s response.

The Brahms is less successful, somewhat heavy and dragging, and Richter can be splashy. This is of course a ‘big’ concerto, Brahms hugely extravagant in his demands, and Richter had already been active before the interval. There is though a compelling personality at work. A slowly infused, expressively moulded, mellifluous horn solo opens proceeding, Richter replying modestly and then not forcing the more-demonstrative passages. The BSO is weighty, Richter leonine. Powerful strides are made within an essentially rhapsodic approach, which carries into the scherzo-like second movement. This large-scale, 50-minute rendition continues with an Andante that crawls somewhat for all the eloquence on offer, the movement sinking into an almost-subconscious reverie. No mention is made of the solo cellist. It is presumably Samuel Mayes (1917-90), Boston Symphony ‘first chair’ from 1948 to 1964. The finale, ideally measured, enjoys élan but lacks buoyancy, some episodes without the necessary sparkle that such as Arrau (with Giulini), Anda (Karajan) and Ax (whenever he plays it) bring to it.

For a booklet note WHRA simply re-prints Wikipedia’s Richter posting; generous and comprehensive it may be in terms of input but it is hardly personal to this release or its contents; that said the inclusion of radio announcements (separately tracked) for what seemed to be a live broadcast adds to the sense of occasion. Kit Higginson’s AAD transfer from the original tapes is exemplary – here’s someone not afraid to leave some hiss and in doing so introduces no contamination of true tones: the mono sound is bright, deep and airy; well balanced, too. This is the first release of the complete concert (“not for sale in the USA”): Richter fans and pianophiles needn’t hesitate.

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