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back to our own line of re-issue and contemporary classical compact discsSviatoslav Richter Live in the 1950s: Reviews Listener

Listener Magazine

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.

--Tom Travisano Listener Summer 1997

Click below for More Reviews             Click below for complete contents

Fanfare review   American Record Guide review     Richter Vol 1 Contents   Richter Vol 2 Contents   Richter Vol 3 Contents

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