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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in a op. 16*
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Concerto in a op. 54*, Papillons op. 2
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
*Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra/Lovro von Matačić

Recorded 25th-30th November 1974, Palais Garnier, Monte Carlo (studio recording)*, 21st October 1962, Florence (live recording: Papillons)


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So many of Richterís most incomparable performances reach us via fortuitous live recordings, and yet when the great man was persuaded into the studios with proper equipment and engineers at the ready, as like as not he would freeze. Common repute has it that something of the kind happened with this Grieg/Schumann coupling, which was accorded only modest rapture on its first release and enjoyed a shortish catalogue life. Bryce Morrisonís notes, inspired to full poetic fancy by the live performance of "Papillons", seem to want to put us on our guard ("Richter is heard in more sombre, unsmiling mood"). Oddly enough, thatís not how I hear it.

Itís true that Richter is massive rather than dashing in the opening flourish of the Grieg and in similar passages elsewhere, but if you play them in tempo thatís how they come out. The fastish finale, on the other hand, has all the dash you could wish, albeit of a very purposeful kind. Itís also true that von Matačić, a rather more impulsive and free-wheeling type of artist when left to his own devices, sometimes seems to want to give things a spurt onwards in his louder tuttis and applies only a rather generalised romanticism to the lyrical melodies. But itís also true, at least to my ears, that Richter invests the romantic melodies with genuine warmth, a mellow tone and a flexible rubato even while maintaining an essentially classical approach (the second subject of the first movement is not slowed down any more than Grieg actually asks for).

All this amounts to a Grieg Concerto performance among the élite, yet the Schumann is finer still. Once again, Richter is colossal rather than dashing in the opening flourish, and with all the more reason since in this case it is not a mere romantic gesture but part of the argument. Thereafter Richter unfolds the first movement with much quiet mastery, warmth of tone and, yes, real tenderness and affection. The Intermezzo, as in the case of the Kempff/Krips reissue I enthused over recently, is slowish, and again warm and intimate in feeling. The Finale has strength but also sparkle, and the syncopated second subject is played straight, not pulled about as often happens. In this work, too, I have only praise for von Matačićís contribution.

The recordings are generally satisfactory, reminding us only in the more strenuous moments that even to this day the pianists who record best in fortissimo are those whose tone seems under-projected in the concert hall; there seems also to be some such extraneous noise as a thumping pedal, and headphone listening reveals a few clicks and creaks (from the podium? Chairs? Music stands?). I wouldnít let that put me off. When I first saw this I had my doubts that EMI were exploiting the name of Richter to insert a second-stream product into their "Great Recordings of the Century" series. On the contrary, I feel that this CD deserves belated recognition among the "classic" Grieg/Schumann couplings, headed by Lipatti and Solomon.

And then you get "Papillons". In the wake of the arrival in the west of the "Richter phenomenon", EMI engineers followed him round on his first tour of Italy. Various vicissitudes had to be overcome, and recording live was considered a rather anomalous proceeding in those days. The result was that the recordings were held over, on the grounds that they were not on a level with the best EMI studio recordings, and eventually released on the World Record Club. In view of what we are often prepared to endure in the sacred name of Sviatoslav Richter thereís not much to complain about. The CD transfer is just slightly plummy compared with the original LP (the result of an unwise attempt to mellow it down?) but I was held spellbound as always by the sheer range Richter finds in these innocent-looking pieces. Again, he is massive in fortissimo, but also tender, affectionate, mercurial; in short, fantastic in the most literal sense of the word. The final fade-away as the clock strikes is the stuff legends are made of.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Kevin Sutton

Great Recordings of the Century


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