The idea has got around
that, in Chopin, textual literalness
and expressive freedom are not really
compatible. Richter’s Scherzos show
this not to be so. If some worldwide
catastrophe were to destroy all existing
scores of these pieces and all recordings
of them save a copy of this one, survivors
of the disaster who reconstructed a
score from it would arrive pretty well
at what Chopin wrote – not just the
notes but the timings, the tempi and
the expression marks. Just to give two
examples, the rests at the beginning
of no. 2 are not treated "creatively"
for once, and in no. 3 the cascading
quavers that punctuate the chorale-like
theme actually start when they should
and not some time later, after the pianist
has comfortably moved his hands up the
with a failsafe technique could get
thus far, but don’t get the idea that
Richter is didactic. After the first
challenging chords of no. 1 he unleashes
a maelstrom of black energy whereas
the central section, based on an old
Polish Christmas song, is of the utmost
tenderness and simplicity. Unforgettable
is his treatment of the transition to
this section. As the storms fade and
the music moves to the major key, you
can feel the new mood of tenderness
approaching until, with the last chord
before the Christmas theme starts, a
ray of sunlight seems to enter.
With no. 2, surging
passion is the keynote, giving way to
delicacy and sheer drive as required.
But this is a case where one comments
on everything or nothing, for Richter
penetrates so completely the particular
character of each of the scherzos, and
the particular nature of every moment
of each of them, while relating
those moments perfectly to the whole.
In particular, the sometimes recalcitrant
no. 4 gets a reading of wonderful lightness
and grace. In short, this is simply
stunning Chopin playing. If the survivor
hypothesized above took this as typical
of the piano-playing of our civilization
(alas, it is not) he would marvel at
our achievements, not just our digital
ones but our artistic equilibrium. He
might wonder what on earth went wrong
with a civilization that produced such
The Preludes might
provide him with a hint for, playing
live, Richter is more obviously "searching"
and more inclined to take the sufferings
of the world on his shoulders. While
in the studio he seems like a god on
Mount Olympus, artistically complete
in himself and unaffected by the world
outside, with an audience in front of
him he lives on the edge, pursuing his
neuroses to their extremes. Have nos.
2, 4 and 6 ever sounded so infinitely
desolate? Or no. 13 such an oasis of
fragile beauty? Even the magical lightness
of nos. 11 and 23 seem, in this context,
moments of hard-won tranquillity wrested
from the surrounding gloom.
In terms of textual
correctness, our survivor might suppose
the seventh prelude to be marked "adagio"
when in fact it is marked "andantino",
but aside from that Richter’s observance
of the text is equally keen here – albeit
pursued to quite different ends.
This record documents
two sides of Richter, then; more importantly
still, it provides some of the most
extraordinary Chopin playing on disc.
The recordings are good enough not to
let the playing down.