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
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
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