Robert Riefling (1911-1988) is the subject of the fourth volume
in Simax’s Great Norwegian Performers 1945-2000 series.
He studied with Nils Larsen and with Karl Leimer in Hannover,
later taking summer courses with Fischer and Kempff in Potsdam.
His career grew in the mid-1930s and he reached the finals of
the Queen Elizabeth competition in 1938, at which event Gilels
won first prize.
On records he
is perhaps best remembered for his Berwald, and for Grieg
– the concerto and an LP of one of the violin sonatas. This
makes the focus on Beethoven for this two disc set the more
valuable. Simax’s notes concentrate on the philosophic underpinning
of Riefling’s musico-aesthetic life, all of which makes for
occasionally over-demanding reading. The same notes however
do touch on some adverse criticism Riefling received, and
this relates mainly to a certain cool quality in his playing.
These radio broadcasts, from 1979, 1981 and 1986, two years
before his death, offer some answers, and some amplification
were taped in the 1980s. The Fourth, with Karsten Andersen
directing the Oslo Philharmonic, is intellectual if, to use
the word, cool. The winds are finely punctuated; Riefling’s
tone is a touch glassy, and though it’s not quite as gaunt
as late Serkin it inhabits a similar kind of sound world.
He’s sparing of pedal and his avowedly unsentimental take
and treble-oriented sonority lend the slow movement an aloof
but not unattractive profile. Strong accents and rhythmic
security underpin the finale. The Emperor again shows
a – or a combination of his and the engineers – proclivity
for bright tone. There’s some metrical plasticity in the first
movement especially but with the piano rather too much in
front of the orchestra balances are a little problematic.
Chugging left hand pointing is a distinctive feature of the
The sonatas come
from a recital in May 1979. Here the recording is not truly
flattering to Riefling’s tone but we can certainly hear quite
enough detail to amplify the points made in the discussion
of the two concerto performances. There’s a heavyweight but
uningratiating quality to his playing that commands respect.
One may find him tonally light, especially in the bass, in
these works – especially in Op.109 - but the reserved nobility
is avowed. His honest, if sometimes clangourous sonority doesn’t
quite evoke enough in the Adagio introduction to the
finale of Op.110. There is something anti-Romantic about aspects
of his playing; the austerity is controlled, sometimes almost
chiselled; occasionally it’s remote but never quite cold.
The digitally refined treble trills in the Arietta of Op.111
are evidence of his tremendous touch, but this is not playing
of obviously expressive largesse or reach. It posits a different
awareness of the mechanics of the music and its external expression.
Given the foregoing
this is a somewhat problematic release, but it is very well
documented and revealing of Riefling’s musical ethos in this