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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: Nos. 28 in A op.101 [18:28], 30 in E op.109 [16:56], 31 in A flat op.110 [18:54], 32 in C minor op.111 [23:10]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Recorded in Ohrid, Macedonia, 30 July 1971 (28, 30), Tokyo, Japan, 1 June 1974 (31-32)
DOREMI DHR-7718 [77:34]

Having been unhappy with Doremiís over-interventionist mastering of Richterís Szeged recital, I am relieved to say that the present disc offers sound which, if rather limited and with the odd touch of wow, is unobjectionable and certainly no barrier to listening to the performances.

Richter returned to Beethoven frequently throughout his career, yet he remained a perplexing interpreter of this composer. Op. 101 begins with a surprisingly free treatment of the opening movement, romantically distant from Richterís often marmoreal image but lacking the simple sublimity Schnabel found here. On the other hand, Schnabelís March and Finale are too much of a mess to testify to much beyond the right intentions and Richter is obviously unfazed by any technical hurdles Beethoven can throw up. However, the emphasis in the second movement is very much on the "Lebhaft" part of Beethovenís instructions, a little too manic to be a march and resulting in some rather dry sonority. Likewise in the finale a more simply buoyant performance seems to be waiting in the wings, occasionally glimpsed at but more often brushed aside. The brief interlude of the third movement - in Toveyís words, "one of the most pathetic and mysterious things in all music" Ė brings me to a recurrent worry about these performances, namely that when sublimity and repose are called for, Richter can be merely dutiful, almost perfunctory.

Most interpreters follow Schnabel and Backhaus in treating the first movement of op. 109 as a prayer, the Vivace sections serenely flowing. Richter takes the Vivace at its face value, providing great vitality. An interesting alternative view. An extremely energetic Prestissimo is followed by an account of the variations which, once past the rather static performance of the theme itself, captures that serene flow which evidently does not come easily to Richter.

Surprisingly, he is extremely gentle and relaxed with the sublime first movement of op. 110, which gets a very beautiful performance indeed. It is followed by a scherzo so slow that, in other hands, I would have thought the pianist was playing safe with the fearsome hand-crossings of the trio, but I hardly suppose Richter would have let that worry him. His restrained, low-key approach to the sonata continues to the end with both the Arioso and the Fugue sections a little slow for my taste Ė Beethoven did after all write the pulsing accompaniment of the former in 16th notes rather than 8th notes and I suppose all the extra tails are there for a purpose, while the latter doesnít really seem Allegro to me, even allowing for the "ma non troppo" qualification. Still, itís a performance that should be heard.

The first movement of op. 111 provides further evidence that Richter was not really a natural interpreter of Beethoven, since the various ritardandos are all somewhat exaggerated, pulling apart a movement which has a stop-go element already written into it. The last movement follows the by-now familiar pattern of a perfunctory Arietta followed by much of beauty in the variations.

If Schnabelís op. 101 is too much of a mess for a general recommendation, his opp. 109, 110 and 111, conveniently brought together by Naxos, is one Schnabel disc that everyone should have, so totally does he seem in tune with the sheer sublimity of Beethovenís inspiration. I canít quite say the same for Richter, who is a frequently interesting, sometimes revelatory, but incomplete Beethoven interpreter. For that matter, Richterís tendency was to withdraw ever more into his icy hermitage, playing in small halls away from the great centres, a standard lamp by the piano illuminating the score in the otherwise dark hall while Beethoven, forced into semi-exile from the world by his deafness, longed to reach out to the millions. The two menís agendas were hardly well-matched.

Christopher Howell


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