Very few recordings attain the heights of sheer genius that Richter reaches in this absolutely compulsive account of Pictures. The raw power and force of personality from the very first note is awesome and, even more amazingly, refuses to diminish as the piece progresses. Certainly there are more accurate accounts, but as an all-encompassing phenomenon, this is quite simply unique. Richter's control, from the most whispered pianissimo to the most cataclysmic fortissimo, is magisterial.
The risks he takes do not always come off, it has to be admitted, but these only serve to remind us of the live atmosphere (and the fluffs do not, to quote a reviewer's cliché, 'irritate on repeated listening'). The daring of 'The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba Yaga)' spills into the overwhelming block chords of 'The Great Gate of Kiev'. Never at any point does one hanker for the softer edges of a Ravelian orchestra, such is the variety of Richter's touch and force of conviction. Mussorgsky's rock-like sonorities are laid bare unapologetically and triumphantly.
The above would be recommendation for this disc enough: the rest of Richter's programme merely confirms this as an essential purchase. The group of three Schubert pieces acts as an ideal contrast to the barnstorming ructions of the Mussorgsky; as shown in the most recent Regis incarnation of Sonatas (see my review of RRC1049), Richter gives these pieces a stature most pianists would not dream of. The C major Moment musical is perfectly poised; the E flat Impromptu exhibits clear, smooth runs which makes one's mouth water; the A flat Impromptu takes in a wide range of fluid expression.
Chopin's E major Etude from Op. 10 fits the programme well (although he does perhaps over-exaggerate the drama of the contrasting section). As for the Liszt, we are once more on home territory, the gossamer lightness of touch of 'Feux follets' working well against the sonorities of 'Harmonies du soir'.
Rachmaninov's G sharp minor Prelude fulfils its encore function beautifully. By this time, this reviewer is tempted to wax lyrical and evoke images of snow falling on the streets of St Petersburg, such is the echt-Russianness of this reading.
Time to stop, then. Suffice it to say that the disc is priceless
because of Pictures alone. To have the bonus of works by Schubert,
Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov joining the party is uncharacteristic
generosity from the major record companies these days.