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Sviatoslav Richter Live in the 1950s: Reviews
One major modern pianist who, like Glenn Gould,
has steadfastly marched to his own drummer is
Sviatoslav Richter. While Gould renounced the
concert platform for the recording studio when he
turned thirty. Richter, perhaps even more the ecstatic introvert, has come close to renouncing the
recording studio for the concert platform--and he
now plays only when and where the whim strikes him,
and only in remote venues of his own choosing.
These volumes of live performances taped in
Moscow in the 1950s allow us to understand what
Emil Gilels was talking about when he told adoring western audiences, "Wait till you hear Richter!" The enigmatic, slightly veiled quality of
some of Richter's recent performances is not heard
here. This is powerful, virtuosic, imaginative, and
highly communicative playing by a young keyboard colossus. The sound of these live recordings, while variable, is never worse than fair: listenable 1950s Russian mono.
First, the good news: As a rule, the sound has
considerable impact and presence. Now, the bad
news: The highs can be tinny, and the sound occasionally shatters at high volumes. Still, most of
the time, these recordings capture Richterian delicacy aptly while handling Richter's massive
fortissimos without distortion. Compared to the
old Monitor LPs of Richter--where a microphone
placed under a horse, blanket in a galaxy far, far
away seemed to represent the state of the Soviet
sound engineering art--these discs get us "closer
to the music.
In terms of repertoire, these recordings deal
from strength. Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Debussy,
Tchaikovsky, Schumann, and Mussorgsky are
composers close to the center of Richter's musical vision. Noting that these four discs contain
no Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Schubert, and
only a smidgen of Chopin and Lizst, one begins
to sense just how broad Richter's musical center
actually was--and is.
Highlights for me are many, including Vol.1's
Prokofiev Cinderella transcriptions, played with
amazing vigor, plus an awesome Prokofiev Sonata
No. 7. Similarly engrossing are Richter's exciting
versions of about half of Rachmaninov's Preludes
and a stirring Tchaikovsky Grand Sonata, a Richter specialty. Vo1.2, which enshrines live October
1952, June 1955, and 1957 Moscow performances,
provides an eloquent Schumann Humoresque, a
mystery-ringed Scriabin Sonata No.2, a fine pair
of Debussy "Cloches à travers les feuilles" (as
encores from two concerts), and a terrific
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition.
This is not the famous, and extraordinary,
1958 Sofia Pictures, taped in gritty mono before
a Bulgarian audience apparently celebrating a
bronchitis festival. Rather, this is a fresh sounding 1952 mono version, taped before a nearly silent Moscow crowd. This Moscow version is
much easier to listen to; it sounds, to my ears, more
nuanced and coherent, and it lacks only the
heaven-storming, galvanic strength of the Sofia
final movements to merit a place in pianism's ultimate Valhalla. By any rational standard, this is a
superb performance. The Tchaikovsky Concerto
has rugged strength and some delicacy, but the orchestral sound is limiting and the USSR State Sym-
phony under Nathan Rachlin sounds ragged at
times. There are, frankly, better versions out
there--including at least one by Richter.
Veteran Fanfare reviewers Leslie Gerber and
John Wiser, who traced these never-before-released live recordings back to unspecified sources
in Russia. serve as producer and production assistant, respectively, in what is clearly a labor of love.
Gerber is an eminent Richterian, and his brief notes
are excellent. Seasoned Richter fans may have
accumulated later studio versions of several of
these pieces, but Richter's early live performances.
with their electric intensity, make their own insistent claims, while telling us a lot about his development as an artist.
Because of their very direct brand of communication, and their convenient, compact presentation of his core repertoire, these discs would
serve as a wide ranging and attractive introduction to anyone new to Richter's extraordinar~ brand
of pianism. All in all, a mind-boggling five hours
olmusic on four discs, neatly compressed into two
separately purchasable slimline jewelcases.
Listener Summer 1997