> RICHTER Prokofiev Sonata 4 BBC Legends [CH]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Sonata in G, K. 283
Piotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

The Seasons, op. 37a: 5. May: Starlight Night, 6. June: Barcarolle, 11. November: In a Troika, 1. January: By the Hearth
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1843)

Etudes-Tableaux, op. 39: 3. F sharp minor, 4. B minor
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Sonata no. 9, op. 68 – "Black Mass"
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Sonata no. 4 in C minor, op. 29
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Recorded in Aldeburgh Parish Church, 19.6.1966
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4082-2 [67.19]

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I’ve just been complaining about the disappointing BBC studio sound in the Curzon disc in this series (but don’t miss it for the live Liszt – BBCL 4078-2) so I’ll start by saying that this is pretty good. If without the full range of modern recordings it still falls attractively on the ear. In any case, posterity seems destined to have to appreciate Richter through live recordings in subfusc sound, and this is marvellous compared with most of them. Oddly, though the audience can be heard, there is no applause, and the audience rustlings continue after the end of each piece. Did audiences in those days still think you shouldn’t applaud in a church?

In his last years Richter gave frequent performances of Mozart concertos notable for their unflappable deliberation. This manner of playing Mozart is revealed to have deep roots, for back in 1966 the first two movements of the K. 283 sonata were already dealt out with an Olympian calm. Given the beauty of the sound and the musicality of the phrasing this has its own rewards, though I felt that a little more expressive inflection would not have been amiss in the Andante (Richter gives us a full clutch of repeats). The Finale, on the other hand, seems a little aggressive. There are pianists who relish Mozart’s interplay of themes as though each one is a character on the operatic stage. Richter concentrates wholly on the sheer musical value of the notes. Or so it seems to me. After I had prepared this comment in my head I read Chris de Souza’s notes which state such an opposite view that it seems fair to quote it: "As Richter shapes the phrases and shades the contrasts, it is easy to imagine an operatic scene, the apparently seamless flow of the music holding together fleeting changes of mood and manner".

In the Tchaikovsky pieces, often dismissed as very minor chippings from his workshop, Richter again plays no tricks. The music is presented as it appears on the page, as beautifully as possible, and this has to be enough. In a way it is. But, just as Richter seems to turn a deaf ear to one essential aspect of Mozart, the operatic side of his personality, so he seems, in his rigorously musical presentation, to ignore both the pictorial and the balletic sides of Tchaikovsky’s make-up. The Barcarolle has a deliberation which almost wilfully avoids any sense of the lapping of the water, and the contrapuntal lines are to be appreciated for their intellectual value rather than as two dancers weaving around each other. In its severe way it is very beautiful. I’ve heard plenty of performances of Troika where the sleigh bounds joyfully over the snow; Richter makes us hear the first part as an abstract piece of melodic/harmonic writing. Then the middle section flashes away and the theme returns at a more "normal" tempo. According to de Souza the first section "perhaps represents the conveyance standing still as the passengers climb in". Well, in this performance it does sound like that, but was that Tchaikovsky’s intention?

These two pieces are the most popular, most characterful, of "The Seasons". Where the composer is in unusually bland form, in May and January, Richter extracts more music than one would have thought possible.

Still, I think the success of the Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Prokofiev pieces may be to do with the fact that their inspiration derived from the piano itself rather than from external visions which were then realised on the piano. The Rachmaninov are a splendid display. At 7’28" the Scriabin is conspicuously shorter than the 1965 Carnegie Hall performance (9’18") by Horowitz – hardly a pianist noted for his slow tempi! Both have their validity. With Horowitz every detail is sharply etched while Richter gives us a more impressionistic rendering, letting notes and colours run into each other in a hedonistic riot. The Prokofiev is expounded in an exemplary manner, every contrapuntal line rigorously clear (no mean feat as the long melodic lines entwine around each other in the slow movement). Some cliff-hanging performances of the finale may convey more excitement.

Richter was a very great pianist, and a very great enigma too. He could respond to the inspiration of the moment with playing that was white-hot, but he could also be didactic. On 19th June 1966 he was the latter, but hear him anyway, for he always makes you think about the music he plays.

Christopher Howell

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