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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat K482 [34:46]*
Piano Concerto no.27 in B flat K595 [32:11]*
Adagio and Fugue in C minor K546 [08:48]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)*
English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
rec. live, 13 June 1967, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Festival) (K482, K546), 16 June 1965, Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Festival (K595)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4206-2 [76:04]


Some Richter treasure here. In the B flat his touch is crystalline, his phrasing shapely. The tempo seems deceptively relaxed during the opening tutti, but Richter makes the brilliant passages sparkle nevertheless. Over and above it all is a feeling of humanity. He could always be lofty but even in his heyday he could seem remote in the classical repertoire, as he increasingly did in his later years. Here is a performance by which to remember him as a wonderful Mozartian. For the record, there is a notable memory lapse near the beginning.

The Larghetto is very slow but he holds the attention, while the finale is exuberant at a slightly faster pace than we often hear. Britten sometimes seems to want to characterize every moment to excess, but at least we know that with him on the rostrum that there will be none of the nondescript phrasing which critics sometimes describe as “unaffectedly musical” (aka “the conductor beats time and it goes how it goes”). The silence which greets the performance reminds us that in those high and far off times applause was still disapproved of in a church.

As I said, some Richter treasure. Then there’s the E flat … Actually, in the first movement Richter’s playing is much as it is in the other work. Where I take issue is with Britten.

Each great composer has his own particular relationship with the different keys. E flat was for Mozart the key of Die Zauberflöte. Even the E flat Symphony – no.39 – is, once past the introduction, more about warmth and humanity than about drama. Annie Fischer, with the Philharmonia under a particularly inspired young Wolfgang Sawallisch, takes us into the enchanted world of the Magic Flute. For Beethoven, E flat was the key of the Eroica and the Emperor Concerto. Perhaps it was for Britten, too, and I get the idea he wants to take this concerto by the scruff of its neck and turn it into a proto-Emperor Concerto. For a while the pair seem at odds, with Richter gently pursuing his own path willy-nilly. Then gradually he gets the bug. The reprise of the main theme of the Andante is unusually full-textured for Mozart, but there’s no need to make it sound like Rachmaninov. The theme of the finale is rapped out most unsympathetically, with Britten in full agreement.

And then there are the cadenzas. For the B flat, Mozart had fortunately written his own. For the E flat, Britten has supplied the gap. Now, I’ve nothing against a contemporary composer providing a cadenza in his own style. I very much enjoyed the cadenzas which Kalevi Aho wrote for Sharon Bezaly to play in the flute concertos. They were totally contemporary yet somehow they provided their own comment on the works. In a strange way they fitted. Britten could have done something of the kind. Or he could have simply tried to keep as close to the Mozartian style as possible. Instead, I just don’t know what he thought he was doing. These sound like extracts from the sort of empty virtuosic Soviet competition pieces which were churned out by the likes of Kabalevsky downwards. Quite unspeakably awful!

So this is more one for the Richter – and Britten – completists.

For the record, since writing this I’ve read in the booklet that the cadenzas were intended as a musical portrait of Richter’s own personality. Most unflattering, I must say.

To conclude, there is the Adagio and Fugue in C minor. I recently had Klemperer stomping through this and making it sound like Beethoven. Britten’s wide range of dynamic shading, effective in its way, makes it sound like a cousin to the Elgar Introduction and Allegro. Is there a performance somewhere that makes it sound like Mozart?

The recordings are extremely good. Alternative Richter versions of these concertos are few. There’s a 1966 version of K595 with Barshai in Moscow, and versions of K.482 with Ormandy from 1970 – I don’t know how official a recording this is – and Muti from 1979. The latter is an EMI studio recording. These are hardly top recommendations, but I’ll be returning to the B flat quite often.

Christopher Howell 


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