It was not until 1960 that the Soviet authorities allowed Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) to play in the West. In May of that year he gave concerts in Finland and the following October made his US debut, playing first with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This WHRA release presents on CD for the first time his subsequent debut concert with the Boston Symphony.
Two days after his Chicago debut he had made a studio recording of the Brahms Second concerto with the Chicago Symphony and Erich Leinsdorf (review). I believe there is also a recording of the Beethoven First concerto with Munch and the Bostonians (JVC JM-XR24018). I wonder if that was made in the days following this Boston concert. Given that the concert was an important event it’s a pity that WHRA don’t provide a bespoke booklet note with detail about Richter’s first US appearances. Instead what we get is a reprint of the Wikipedia general biography of Richter, which makes only a brief reference to this particular point in his career, including the pianist’s expression of dissatisfaction with the Brahms concerto recording that he made in Chicago. Happily, there’s some useful further information in a review of these CDs by David Gutman in the January 2012 issue of International Record Review. Mr Gutman says that Richter was greatly impressed by the standard of the accompaniment that Munch and the BSO provided – he was, apparently, less enamoured of the support that he got in Chicago from Leinsdorf, who was drafted in to replace the indisposed Fritz Reiner. Gutman also quotes at greater length Richter’s views on the Chicago Brahms recording.
On listening to these discs it seemed to me that the partnership between Richter and his Boston hosts was at its most fruitful in the Beethoven. The Brahms, though admirable in many ways, has its rough edges. The very opening of the first movement is taken very broadly indeed – a bit too broadly for my taste. The first orchestral tutti (from 1:44) sounds very hard driven – and Richter’s solo leading up to it is a bit splashy. I wondered if this hard-driven impression derived from the recorded sound, which can be a touch harsh in loud passages. However, as the movement unfolded I came to the view that Munch’s way with the orchestral score tends to be rather too vigorous at times. The louder passages sound somewhat emphatic and one has the impression that everyone is trying just a bit too hard. Having heard several live Brahms performances from Boston under Pierre Monteux in recent months I couldn’t help but wonder if the results here might have been better had Le Maître been on the rostrum. However, that’s perhaps less than fair to Munch and it has to be said that the more reflective passages in this movement come off well. Richter displays considerable virtuosity in the face of the often formidable demands of the solo part though he’s not infallible. Neither is the BSO principal horn player, who has a distinctly shaky – and exposed – few moments at 9:10. My overall impression is that this movement doesn’t quite come off though there’s much to admire along the way.
Thereafter, however, matters improve significantly. Everyone sounds much more at ease in II; this movement is given a dynamic and assured reading. For me, the Andante shows the value of issuing live concert recordings. The tone is set by the fine, nutty-toned cello solo (Samuel Mayes?) and then we find Richter in reflective, elevated mood. This is a distinguished account of one of Brahms’s most sublime movements, nowhere more so than in the passage (from 7:42) that leads back to the reprise of the cello solo (at 9:48). This is inspirational playing, caught on the wing and possibly never repeatable – except that it’s preserved here for us. The concerto ends with a felicitous reading of the sunny finale. Here both soloist and orchestra offer high spirits and also passages of great delicacy.
Though there are a few reservations about the Brahms performance the Beethoven concerto strikes me as a pretty unqualified success. The reading of I is very fine. The pacing seems well-nigh ideal and Richter’s pianism is of the highest order; his playing is, by turns, nimble, graceful and dynamic. Munch and his orchestra are excellent partners for him. One passage stood out for me; at 8:49 Richter’s pianissimo chromatic triplets are just exquisite before the soloist’s headlong downward plunge to the recapitulation. Richter offers the longest and most challenging of Beethoven’s cadenzas (12:45-16:14) and gives a brilliant account of it.
In II Richter is rapt and patrician and he plays with great refinement. The tempo is spacious but the performers fully vindicate the choice of speed. There are one or two minor tonal blemishes in the orchestral accompaniment but these are insufficient to mar a captivating performance caught on the wing. The Rondo is brilliant and vital and the ovation that greets the end of the performance is entirely justified.
A will be noted from the track listing at least some of the radio announcements have been retained and this I like; it increases the sense of occasion. The transfers are “from the original broadcast tapes”. I imagine that the broadcast was by station WGBH, the long-time broadcasting partner of the BSO. Inevitably the fifty-year-old sound has its limitations – booming timpani, for example - but the sound is no bar to enjoyment and the transfers, by Kit Higginson, are good.
This was an important occasion in the career of Sviatoslav Richter and this great pianist’s many admirers should ensure they hear these discs.