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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, op.83*, Sonata No.1, op.1 Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf*
Recorded October 17th 1960 in the Orchestra Hall, Chicago (Concerto), July 10th 1988, Hasselburg, Scheune (Sonata)
BMG CLASSICS/RCA RED SEAL 82876 60860 2 [78:45]

 

The concerto was made in the year of Richter’s first tour to the United States, the year which culminated in the extraordinary recital that recently saw the light of day under the title “Richter rediscovered” (see review).

It was going to take a lot to dumbfound a musical world dominated by Rubinstein and Horowitz but Richter succeeded in doing so. This performance at least partly tells us why. When we listen to a moment like his entry in mid-second movement (after the orchestra has burst into A major in joyful “Academic Festival” vein), we find that the music has a clarity and shapeliness thanks to which the passage actually makes sense for once, and then listen to how the melodic lines soar above the accompaniment in the lyrical writing that follows. Indeed, over and beyond the gargantuan technique, I think what I most remember about the performance is this extraordinary independence and warmth of every melodic line, against which the accompaniments murmur almost imperceptibly, yet with a colour of their own.

But classical Brahms it ain’t. The opening horn solo is very slow and dreamy, and Richter answers it slower still. Soon after the music is galloping ahead. The first big orchestral tutti adopts a wide range of tempi, but Richter widens them even more, often imposing a new tempo whenever he enters, not (I believe) because Leinsdorf has got it wrong but because this is all part and parcel of the grand concerto manner of which Richter was still, at that time, an exponent. It is really absurd to talk of a tempo for the first movement at all, there are so many of them, and the whole thing depends for its structure on the pianist’s being able to hold it together by the sheer size of his personality. It’s superb Rachmaninov playing, applied to Brahms.

This approach is less destructive in the other movements and the sheer beauty of the pianism means that you have to hear this at least once, but surely reticence and understatement are also a part of the Brahmsian make-up?

Leinsdorf in Chicago raises an eyebrow; I can’t state chapter and verse but I think I read somewhere that he stood in at the last moment for an indisposed Fritz Reiner. He enters wholeheartedly into Richter’s interpretation, obtaining some warm-hearted, even plushy phrasing, the slow movement being pushed by both artists towards the world of Korngold. Interesting in that Leinsdorf’s recordings of the symphonies, in so far as I have heard them, take quite a different view, sober to the point of stiffness. Reiner, too, was a classically-minded artist who conducted Gilels in a sweepingly classical version of this concerto that many critics still think unsurpassed, so I wonder what he would have made of Richter, and whether his indisposition that day was not more political than physical?

The piano sonata documents a different part of Richter’s career. Now in his seventies but in some ways assuming an elder statesman attitude that made him seem older still, he remained phenomenally active, touring the world ceaselessly, but preferring medium-small concert halls to the larger ones, playing with the score in front of him, illuminated by a standard lamp which was the only lighting he allowed in the hall. He restlessly enquired into new repertoire, which he often seemed to be sightreading (but what sightreading!). He also developed a penchant for Yamaha pianos.

How many of these factors are reflected in the sonata recording I cannot know (but of one thing I’m quite sure: he’s not sightreading!). Looked at coldly and detachedly it may not be a good example for students or even very Brahmsian at times, but I found this totally irrelevant. What we have is an enthralling recreation of the work, for Richter was by now a supreme giant in “orchestrating” piano music, giving each strand of a complex texture its own weight and colour. The first movement has a stately progress which would be heavy in other hands, but after the molten, volcanic opening chords it drifts into a timeless meditation, a gracious interplay of melodic lines. The Andante may seem to have acquired the breadth of the steppes in place of Brahms’s gentle pastures, but is so hypnotically convincing as to silence all criticism. The finale opens with the Cossacks riding full tilt, but then hear the warmth of the more lyrical sections.

I see no point in comparing this with other versions, except perhaps by Richter himself if they exist. This is a legendary, visionary statement about the music, to be heard on its own terms.

Christopher Howell



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