Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No.8 in C minor, Op.13 Pathétique* [17:33]; No.17 in D minor, Op.31 No.2 The Tempest [23:33]; No.23 in F minor, Op.57 Appassionata [23:44]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. (Op.13: 4 June 1959, Moscow? Op.31 No.2: 1-5 August 1961, London? Op.57: 29-30 November, 1960, Carnegie Hall, New York City, USA?) mono*/stereo
Recordings first published in 1961
REGIS RRC1384 [65:08]
The Richter discography is confusing, complicated by the artist’s progressive dislike of studio recording and our consequent reliance upon recordings of live performances. Regis did us a great favour in issuing his glorious account of the Beethoven Sonatas nos. 3, 4 and 27, recorded in the 1970s and licensed from Olympia. At first I found it hard to summon up the same gratitude for the clangourous, mono sound of the Pathétique that opens this collection. The high levels of distortion and muddy ambience severely restrict the pleasure to be derived from this magisterial performance. They also serve to exaggerate the restless drive of Richter’s interpretative stance, untempered by any depth or beauty of sound. As such, it makes harsh listening.
Things look up with the second two items, recorded in very listenable stereo. The only recording information we are given by Regis is that they were “first published in 1961”. The “Gramophone” quotation identifies the Appassionata as being the “Living Stereo” recording made for RCA Victor. It was used as the ‘filler’ for his Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 made with Leinsdorf, itself a superb performance. The Tempest could well be the recording made for EMI and issued along with the Schumann Fantasia. The Pathétique is presumably the 1959 studio recording for Melodiya. Richter aficionados will no doubt identify their specific origins.
Although nos. 17 and 23 here are satisfactory, some might feel the need to try to locate a recording of Richter playing the Pathétique in better sound, given that this Regis version is trying. However, the Richter discography contains only two mono recordings, one a 1959 studio event on Melodiya and the other a live 1958 one on Parnassus. This one on Regis is presumably that same 1959 studio recording, currently available in the Melodiya Richter Edition. The Appassionata and The Tempest are also available recorded live in 1965, on the Praga and Music and Arts labels.
Discographical and sonic matters apart, what of the quality of these performances? Richter was in the plenitude of his powers when these performances were recorded, just at the time he was being introduced to the Western world.
Despite the rough, cavernous sound in the Pathétique, the combination of muscular dynamism and headlong propulsion alternating with gentle lyricism is still very much in evidence and alerts us to the fact that we could be listening to no other pianist.
It is nonetheless a relief to turn to the Tempest in good stereo. Richter draws out the opening Largo daringly, using his glorious singing tone to span the gaps and create the effect of legato. He engineers the maximum contrast between the slow episodes and the Allegro passages. Beethoven and Richter were made for each other. The close recording allows us to hear the opening notes resonate for what seems like forever as Richter conjures up vast spaces. The Mozartian Adagio has a delicate poise and limpid beauty without sentimentality. The lilt of the Allegretto is seductive, then the music morphs into something more violent and disturbing. Richter narrates a story employing many voices.
The Appassionata was one of Richter’s signature works, frequently performed and recorded. Here, it really lives up to the implications of its sobriquet. To me it seems perverse to require restraint and understatement in this, one of the most energised and tumultuous compositions ever written for the piano. This is a bold, brilliant account which manages to justify what could sound like extremes of fast and slow in less skilful hands. You will never hear greater dexterity or more thrilling playing than the way he steers the Presto to its climactic conclusion. This recording remains justly famous for its power and poetry.
Justly famous for its power and poetry.