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Fryderyck CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Scherzos, opp.20 [10:32], 31 [09:49], 39 [07:32], E [11:38], Preludes, op. 28: nos. 4-10, 13, 19, 11, 2, 23, 21 [20:46]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Scherzi recorded 1977 by Ariola-Eurodisc for Mezhdunarodnaya KNIGA, Preludes recorded live at Kanagwa Kenmin Hall, Japan, 20th March 1979
REGIS RRC 1199 [60:17]

 

 

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 keyboard.

Theoretically anybody 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 a marvel.

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.

Christopher Howell

 



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