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

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

 

Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata no.6 in A op.82 [26:16]; Piano Sonata no.9 in C op.103 [24:30]; Piano Pieces from "Cinderella": The Quarrel op.102/3 [03:11]; Gavotte op.95/2 [02:20]; The Fairy of Autumn op.97/3 [01:03]; Orientalia op.97/6 [01:03]; Waltz. Cinderella and the Prince op.102/1 [06:18]; Légende op.12/6 [03:39]; Visions fugitives op.22/3 [01:12]; 4 [00:49]; 5 [00:20]; 6 [00:25]; 8 [01:26]; 9 [01:00]; 11 [00:52]; 14 [00:57]; 15 [00:42]; 18 [01:19]; Danza op.32/1 [02:34]; Valse op.32/4 [02:52]; Pensées op.62/3 [06:03]; Sonatine pastorale op.59/3 [02:53]; Rondo op.52/3 [04:41]; Valse op.96/1 [05:13]; Suggestion diabolique op.4/4 [03:05]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. live Bunka Kaikan Hall, Tokyo, 2 December 1980 (Sonata 9 and "Cinderella"), 3 June 1981 (others), but see note in review regarding the dates.
MEMORIA 991-011/12 [66:31 + 46:03]

 

Live Richter continues to pour in from all sides. This one is prefaced by a note from the great man himself:

"These recordings, made during two live concerts with a simple cassette recorder, cannot claim to offer the same technical quality as a digital recording. However, I feel that they deserve to be made available to a broader public for purely artistic reasons".

That sounds official enough, and yet according to the Richter discography which can be consulted at www.trovar.com and which has some distinguished names among its compilers, the given dates are wrong. They claim that Sonata no.6 was played on 12 February 1981 and the rest on 6 March of that year. I wish companies putting out this sort of material would be clearer about what they are actually issuing and how they come to have it. Instead, we just get a reasonable enough essay by Ingo Harden on the music itself.

Be that as it may, nobody is disputing that we have here examples of a late return by Richter to part of his Prokofiev repertoire. As for the recording, the reference to a "simple cassette recording" struck horror in my soul but I suggest it must have been something a bit more sophisticated. It is true that in comparison with the 1960 Carnegie Hall recital recently issued by RCA (see my review) and containing the 6th Sonata and a similar selection from "Visions fugitives", the earlier recording has slightly greater richness and depth, but the present one has none of the instability of pitch, distortion and dynamic compression usually associated with amateur taping. A certain shallowness struck me as possibly a true reportage of the acoustics of the hall and/or the piano used, and I wondered if it was taped from a broadcast rather than just by someone sitting in the hall with a tiny cassette recorder hidden under his seat or in her handbag. Certainly, no prospective buyer need fear that the performances will be seriously compromised on technical grounds.

Another question that the notes might have addressed, bearing in mind that the album is entitled "A Musical Friendship", is that of the frequency with which Richter actually programmed Prokofievís music. According to the above-mentioned discography, only two pieces here, the Rondo op.52/3 and the Valse op.96/1, do not exist in alternative Richter versions, but the previous tapings all date from around two decades earlier. In the case of the 6th Sonata no fewer than six versions exist from 1956 (Prague) to 1966 (Locarno), then silence until 1981. The two alternatives of the 9th Sonata are from 1956 (Prague) and 1958 (Moscow). Most of the alternatives of the smaller pieces come from 1960, in which year Richter programmed a not dissimilar sequence. I speak very tentatively, since I realize that during the late 1960s and the 1970s Richter must have given hundreds of recitals of which no recorded trace remains, but it does rather look as though his proselytizing on behalf of his friend reached its peak in the decade following the composerís death and tailed off until this single late return. It is interesting that the pieces he returned to were the same as always. The selection of ten pieces from "Visions fugitives", for example, is exactly the same as in 1960. But I repeat, recordings may yet emerge to disprove this point.

Compared with the 1960 Carnegie Hall performance of Sonata no.6, three out of four movements were slower in 1981:

 
  I

II

III IV
1960 08:34

03:47

06:58 06:14
1981 08:58 03:59 06:33 06:46

The 1981 first movement gains in grandeur at the cost of a slightly laboured feel at times, but the 1981 second movement is a delight. Richter uses the extra space to give the music a knowing, even saucy, air. And, while in 1960 he emphasized the "Lentissimo" part of Prokofievís instructions, in 1981 he does not forget that it is also marked "Tempo di valzer"; it now has a greater flow, conversational ease taking the lead over grim depth-searching. By 1981 Richter could no longer go hell-for-leather at certain passages of the finale as in 1960, but the more lyrical sections are perhaps better integrated into the whole. Altogether, it looks as if confirmed Richterites will need both versions.

I donít have either of the earlier recordings of no.9, but can report a loving, mellow and relaxed performance. The smaller pieces Ė almost all in a moderate tempo Ė equally testify to a Richter who, contrary to his image, was ready to relax and even show a degree of humanity and humour behind the granitic set jaws. What he canít quite do is persuade me that, after the explosive op.3 and op.4 pieces - from which the famous "Suggestion diabolique", stunningly played, closes the programme - and the wholly remarkable, aphoristic "Visions fugitives", Prokofievís later short pieces are much more than the Soviet equivalent of Hausmusik.

The differences between the 1960 and 1981 performances of Richterís selection from the "Visions" are minimal; very slightly, his younger self seems more vividly attuned to the young composerís essays in expressionism, but the richer recording may have contributed to my impression. In 1960 these pieces were played in small groups as encores, so applause bursts in several times along the way. This is clearly a point in favour of the 1981 version purely as a listening sequence. The Gavotte from "Cinderella" was also an encore in 1960; the 1981 performance has more relaxed charm.

Confirmed Richterites will need no encouragement from me to snap this up; those whose interest is more specifically in Prokofiev, or just good music in general, are advised that this album documents an important musical relationship and an authoritative interpreter of some of the 20th centuryís finest piano music in more than acceptable sound. Richterís own assessment, quoted at the beginning of this review, proves entirely correct.

Christopher Howell

 

 



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