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alternatively Crotchet

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor D.784 [24:58]
Thirteen Variations on a Theme by Anselm Hüttenbrenner D.576 [13:54]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke op. 12: Des Abends [4:12], Aufschwung [2:51], Warum [3:23], In der Nacht [3:50], Traumes Wirren [2:06], Ende vom Lied [5:26]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images Book 2: Cloches à travers les feuilles [6:18]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. live 31 March 1979, Royal Festival Hall, London (D. 784), 8 October 1969, Free Trade Hall, Manchester (remainder)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL4222-2 [67:35]

As usual with Richter releases, it’s best to start by explaining how all this slots into the pianist’s complicated discography. I am relying on an internet source which seems to be pretty complete and well organized.
A very slightly earlier performance of the Schubert sonata – Tokyo, 7 February 1979 – was issued by EMI, subsequently by Melodiya, Le Chant du Monde, Olympia, Regis and others. Previous circulation of the London performance has been limited to an earlier BBC issue. These two seem to be the only Richter performances of the sonata in existence.
The Manchester performance of the Huttenbrenner is the only known one. It has had a few previous issues.
The Schumann is a classic example of Richter’s nearly-but-not-quite completist stance. As early as 1948 he set the cycle down in Moscow minus nos. 4, 6 and 7. By 1956 – in Moscow and Prague – he had added no. 7, and so it remained in Manchester in 1969. Various performances of single numbers are scattered around but he never seems to have touched 4 and 6.
A similar enigma surrounds Richter’s “Images”. He played “Estampes” and the first book of “Images” on numerous occasions. Equally numerous are the surviving performance of the first piece from the second book, from 1954 through to 1968, usually as an encore. The Manchester performance is the third on BBC Legends alone and is the only item here which is actually appearing for the first time. No recordings have emerged of the remaining two “Images” in this book.
The Schubert Sonata provides interesting fuel for a discussion of exactly what constitutes personality in a performer. Schubert’s dynamic markings are scrupulously observed, tempi are held consistently, rubato is sparingly applied. You could feel that he gives insufficient consideration to the fact that the Andante is in divided common time. Otherwise, on the face of it the reading could hardly be more faithful to the score if it had been realized by a computer. Yet it sounds utterly personal, like no other performance I’ve ever heard.
What carries it into Tchaikovsky, or even Shostakovich, territory is, I think, the deliberate avoidance of any sort of assuaging Viennese lilt underlying the performance. This is undeniably bleak, even despairing music, written shortly after the composer’s syphilis had been diagnosed. Yet in more “traditional” performances it retains at least a memory of past happiness, perhaps even occasional gleams of comfort. This unremittingly tense, monumental Schubert never seems to have known happiness at all. Ultimately, I would seek out a performance which maintains a balance between the disturbing and the comforting elements. However, as a demonstration of just how tragic and hopeless this music can sound without apparent distortion of the notes, this version demands to be heard. For duty’s sake I record that Richter catches quite a few crabs though this didn’t worry me in the least. The recording is good.
Richter does not attempt to impose a similar tragic weight on the Huttenbrenner Variations. Though essentially serious, he concedes more of a smile, more human warmth. His texturing is always remarkable, but I would point in particular to Variation 12. The singing melody and rippling 16th-notes in the right hand are beautifully separated, while the dotted rhythms in the staccato left hand create a delightful effect of pizzicato strings entering not quite together. Whereas a sympathetic but unimaginative pianist like Dalberto leaves one querying whether this piece is really worth bothering with, Richter shows what can be got out of it – again without any distortion, just by imaginative recreation of the score. 
This recording is also good. The problem is the cougher. I am fairly tolerant over live recordings and can put up with a gentle background of shuffling and spluttering. Here it seems to be a single person, strategically placed close to the microphone, and apparently with a cued score in which the moments best guaranteed to irritate have been carefully marked. In the end I found myself thinking more about that than the music. A few bars’ peace would have me thinking “I haven’t heard from the cougher for quite a while”, and that would be the cue for the next entry.
Fortunately the Schumann is less affected, although a particularly withdrawn moment in “Warum” shows just how much havoc one well-placed cough can wreak. Here Richter is at his most poetic and communicative. At the end of the second part of “Warum”, for example, he waits so long I thought he was not going to play the repeat, then, as if he had made the decision in that very moment, he plays the section again even more wistfully and hesitantly than before. At the other end of the scale is the clarity of texture he obtains in “Aufschwung”, the powerful surge of “In der Nacht” and the delicate fingerwork of “Traumes Wirren”.
Textures and evocative poetry are again to the fore in the Debussy. If a classic interpreter such as Monique Haas fascinates us by the intricate mechanism of the superimposed chimes, with Richter each strand comes from a different distance, wafting gently through the evening air. Debussy’s title does not actually specify evening, but that’s the impression we get from Richter.
There’s some supreme playing to be heard here. A pity about the cougher.
Christopher Howell


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