Vol.1, Vol.2, Vol.3, Vol.4, Vol.5, Vol.6, Vol.7, Vol.8, Vol.9, Vol.10
There are so many splendid things to say about this two-disc set of Sviatoslav Richter playing Beethoven that it's hard to know where to start. The beginning, with his dryly witty 1986 recording of the E flat major Sonata, Op. 31/3, and its hilarious closing Presto con fuoco. Or the end, with his warmly collegial 1993 recording of the E flat major Quintet for Piano and Winds with members of the Quintette Moragues. But even starting in the middle - with his ethereal 1986 recording of the two Rondos, Op. 51, or his sublime 1993 recording of the B flat major Trio (called the "Archduke") with violinist Mikhail Kopelman and cellist Valentin Berlinsky from the Borodin - doesn't cover the best performance here: his exquisitely lyrical 1992 recording of the A major Sonata, Op. 101. With its languid opening "Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung"; its rambunctious central "Lefhaft, marschmassig"; its touching "Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll" introducing its blustery but side-splitting closing "Geschwind," Richter's Opus 101 here surpasses even his 1965 Carnegie Hall performance. Despite the varying recording dates, the sound here is consistently clean and deep.
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A FREE SPIRIT AMONG ARTISTS
A Protean Pianist in Paris
Emil Gilels, greeted with deafening applause, had issued the warning: "Wait till you hear Richter!" The great Soviet pianist, since his death now sadly rather underrated, certainly knew what he was talking about. All the same, when Sviatoslav Richter broke in upon Western musical life in 1960, he caused an earthquake, and its after-shocks continue almost unabated.
Richter first gave recitals in Paris in 1961. In the course of one evening he was to conquer Paris and shatter the piano method taught in official circles. The fact was that this pianist undermined the Conservatoire's vaunted ideas on technique, which were the surviving legacy of a school of piano-playing that went back via the teaching of Marguerite Long to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which were based on a type of instrument-building that was so individual that it had long since ceased to have any international currency. It would take Richter just two hours to sweep all that away. He was not, to be sure, the first player to bring every muscle in his body to bear on his piano-playing. The old Russian pianists and the exiles, such as Rachmaninov and Hofmann, had been exponents of a technique invented by Liszt, which some of his pupils had attempted to hand on and which Alfred Cortot had discovered from Edouard Risler, a technique that had already marked Vladimir Horowitz out in the Twenties. But Richter's arrival was timely. Yves Nat and Clara Haskil had died, Cortot was in retirement, Casadesus abroad, and the only idols left for France were Kempff, Rubinstein and Samson Frangois. Richter administered the final blow five years after Cziffra's first appearance in Paris.
Nothing would ever be the same again. Soon the last Pleyel instruments, with their easy touch, their limited dynamic range and their pastel tone colours, would be seen no more in concert halls or Conservatoire classrooms. But, as we might expect, Richter's technical approach was not the only factor that marked him out from his fellows. There was, too, his repertoire. Had there ever been anything like it before? Here was a pianist who was so unwilling to specialise that, with an impeccable sense of style, he played music by virtually every composer who ever wrote for the piano, from Bach to contemporary repertoire. Has there ever been a pianist as protean as Richter? He played Bach with severity and suppliant humility, like a schoolmaster; Schumann with wild abandon; Prokofiev with savagery; Liszt with phenomenal virtuosity, surpassing all but the likes of Cziffra, Argerich and Barere; French music with the finesse of Gieseking. Again, was there ever a pianist who could move from solo to chamber music so easily that no one ever doubted whether the change of direction was a success, and this in a country where students were routinely described as "not soloist material, but will make a good chamber player"?
All this upset the axiomatic convictions with which France tends to surround itself. But on its own it would not have produced the legend. The pianist was also a personality out of the ordinary. He could have slipped into the classic mould of the great virtuoso, striding the globe, paying annual visits to the great concert halls, playing only with high-profile orchestras and conductors, recording only for the top labels, and taking advantage of his leading status in Soviet musical circles to flee from his country. He had his own answers to all these options.
Travel round the world? To do that, he would have had to "take aeroplanes and die a thousand deaths! Horrible!" So Richter travelled by road, crossing Russia and Siberia when he had to go to Japan.
Perform only in capital cities? "Put a small piano in a truck and drive out on country roads; take time to discover new scenery; stop in a pretty place where there is a good church; unload the piano and tell the residents; give a concert; offer flowers to the people who have been so kind as to attend; leave again." That was Richter's ideal work pattern.
Associate only with the world's great musicians? "I prefer minor orchestras and modest conductors; they are always trying to do better and are willing to rehearse as long as necessary."
Leave his country? When Richter first appeared in the United States, Rudolf Serkin sought him out and told him: "If you want to stay here, I will find you an apartment." Richter heard him out and replied: "My countrymen would very much enjoy your playing; if you ever decide to leave America, let me know, and I could find you an apartment in fifteen minutes!" Serkin never forgot that lesson, reminding us of it shortly before he died.
Richter never wanted to leave his country: "If I go, who will be left?" In his own way he even fought against the Soviet system. He was nearly shot on the day of Stalin's funeral. Obliged to play in front of the corpse of the "Little Father", he had chosen the longest and most concentrated of Bach's forty-eight Preludes and Fugues. Several times they tried to stop him, so that another artist might take over; in the end soldiers removed him from his piano and took him outside. For a moment he feared for his life.
Richter is revered for his talent, his free spirit, his non-conformism and his refusal to submit to market forces in music. He is revered because he was one of the last musicians to follow Plato's definition of music: "Music is a moral law. It gives soul to our hearts, wings to thought and scope to the imagination. It is a charm for melancholy, for mirth, for life, for everything. It is the essence of time and aspires to everything that is invisible in form but at the same time dazzling and passionately eternal."
- Alain Lompech (translation Robert Jordan)