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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Etudes Symphoniques op.13 (including the 6 supplementary variations) [33:58], Bunte Blätter op.99 [34:51], Fantasiestücke op.12: 5. In der Nacht [04:06], 7. Traumes-Wirren [02:38]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Recorded September 1971 except op.12, recorded live at the NHK Hall, Tokyo on 24th February 1979.
REGIS RRC 1186 [76:35]


Richter’s discography is about as enigmatic as the man himself, with a wide range of both studio and live recordings floating in and out of view, now on one label, now on another. Recently I was reviewing the first volume of his Das wohltemperierte Klaver (on RCA) and wondering if this was the same one that used to be on HMV LPs, by courtesy of Melodiya. I now understand that it was part of a batch he made in Germany for Ariola-Eurodisc but actually intended for Melodiya (so it is the same one). And now we have some Schumann from the Ariola-Eurodisc sessions turning up on Regis! It is certainly exciting to be getting a continual stream of Richter performances from all sorts of sources, but of course it means we will never have it all gathered neatly together in something like RCA’s Rubinstein Edition.

Well, collectors, grab this one!

Richter begins the Etudes Symphoniques rather slowly and pensively, with a wonderfully rich sonority, but any thought that this is to be a slow performances is set to flight as the first study begins its goblin-like march, and how warmly he brings out the theme when it appears in counterpoint against this music. In the next Study he brings out the romantic surge, and I was quite overwhelmed at how different he could make the same music sound on each repetition.

This, then, is one of the fundamentals behind the greatness of this performance – its continual, dizzying inventiveness, the work apparently moulded there and then before us. And yet he can do all this without any of the silly distortions lesser mortals feel obliged to essay.

Another fundamental of the performance is its clarity of texture. In the third Study he is apparently not using the pedal at all, so that the right-hand arpeggios sound, not like a harp but like a violin crossing and re-crossing strings. While the melody in the middle voice has all the warmth of a romantic cello. A while back I was remarking that Rubinstein in his Chopin obtained such colour from the piano with his hands that he was able to be sparing with the pedal in a way that would just sound dry with the rest of us. And so it is with Richter’s Schumann.

Yet another fundamental is his rhythm. No. 4, which can sound heavy and dogged, had me wanting to get up and march around the room with it.

And so I could go on. This is very great Schumann playing. Maybe not even Richter can convince me that Schumann was not right in omitting the six extra variations, but it’s marvellous to have them played like this. I wondered at first if the finale was not a little low-key, but then I thought that Richter was deliberately holding back in order to give the theme an extra swagger each time it came round, and so it proved.

So many great pianists have given us this work that I couldn’t claim any single version as the greatest, but among the few that include the extra variations this has to be the classic.

Another Richter enigma was the works he performed complete versus those he performed only in part. Given that it had to be either/or, most of us would have preferred the complete Fantasiestücke rather than Bunte Blätter – a marvellous cycle, yet in all his career he only played six out of eight (I am indebted to James Murray’s insert note for this information). Still, he wanted to do Bunte Blätter and he brings it to life as few could. Not even he can convince me that everything here is on the level of the exquisite (and exquisitely played) opening song, but he fills the air with swirling sound in no.2, he is quite fantastic in the second of the album leaves (another feat of unpedalled clarity) and sighingly tender in the following slow waltz. During the 8:54 of the March, wonderfully intense and coloured as it is, I did look a little longingly at Clara Schumann’s metronome mark of 60 to the half-note (Richter is much slower) and wondered what it might sound like. Another highlight is the oasis of tender lyricism which appears in the middle of the carnivalesque high-jinks (and Carnaval quotation) of the trio to the Scherzo, while the last piece of all has a cheeky sense of humour. Now that’s something I didn’t expect from this grim-jawed man.

The recordings haven’t the bloom we would expect today, or indeed of the best of those of 1971, but they don’t let Richter down. Both the sound and the interpretative manner are well-matched to the live Tokyo recordings (they might easily not have been). In der Nacht is more warmly sung than agitated but Traumes-Wirren is absolutely sizzling – a knockout even alongside the famous old Horowitz 78.

I can only repeat – grab this!

Christopher Howell



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