How comes it, you may ask, that Sviatoslav Richter,
who died in 1997, has apparently risen from the dead to make a DSD SACD
recording of Schubert? The simple answer is that there’s some
involvement of smoke and mirrors here: these recordings were made decades
ago, before even the age of DDD, let alone DSD, and have been re-mastered.
In small print on the inside back page of the booklet you’ll find
that these recordings had already been reissued in 1993 and then by
Praga in 1994.
Richter’s Schubert has been aptly described as uncompromising
and that’s well illustrated in the very first movement of D960
which veers from implausibly slow and soft to heaven-storming alarmingly
quickly, thereby making the music sound much too episodic for my liking.
With the exposition repeat taken, the first movement runs to 25:41,
which I found simply too much of a good thing. After that the slow movement
proper just sounds like more of the same - a fault shared by all too
many performances of the Unfinished
Symphony where the first
movement is taken too slowly - especially as Richter also plays this
movement too slowly - almost adagio
rather than andante sostenuto
- but hardly soulfully.
To turn from Richter to Clifford Curzon or Alfred Brendel is to move
from purgatory to paradise. It’s not just a matter of timings,
but Curzon’s 13:16 for the first movement and Brendel’s
(ADD) time of 14:40 are much more feasible. Richter is actually slightly
faster than Curzon in the scherzo and very little slower in the second
movement and finale, but you might not think so from listening.
It’s not often that I write ‘this just won’t do’
but this is one of those occasions. Even though the scherzo and finale
are taken at a reasonable pace, I can’t warm to this interpretation
of one of the greatest works in the piano literature. I had worried
about the placing of D960 first, thinking that anything that came after
was bound to be an emotional let-down, but I need not have worried:
after this performance of D960 there’s no danger of being brought
down from Cloud Nine.
One positive point: if this is the same recording as that licensed from
Melodiya by HMV in 1974 - it shares many of the hallmarks of that recording,
including an overall time of more than 46 minutes - the sound has certainly
been greatly improved in this transfer.
My disappointment with the performance stems not just from the fact
that I have the wonderful recordings of Clifford Curzon and Alfred Brendel
in mind, both of which present us with music that lies too deep for
tears; I simply would never have come to love this sonata if Richter’s
performance had been my introduction to it. Curzon’s performance
is no longer available separately but the 22-CD set which contains it
(Decca 478 4389) is available as a download in 320kb/s mp3 for a tempting
£28.99 from 7digital.com
target price £65 on disc.
Brendel’s ADD recording is available as part of a 2-CD set of
the last three sonatas on an inexpensive Decca twofer (438 7032); his
live performance with a slightly broader tempo for the first movement
(1997, DDD) is also available on an inexpensive Decca 2-CD set (475
It’s only fair to point out that when the (same?)* Richter performance
of D960 was released on Regis Colin Clarke was so impressed as to recommend
this as an example of sovereign piano playing which no students of Schubert
should be without - review
Another reviewer - not MusicWeb International - awarded the same performance
a full five stars. That Regis CD is no longer available but the coupling
with D958 is still available at budget price on Alto ALC1074.
* slightly different timings for this recording, as listed by Naxos
Music Library, lead me to think that it may be a different performance
made at much the same time, though the first movement starts in the
same implausibly slow manner. While not in DSD, the recording sounds
little inferior to the Praga transfer.
After my negative reaction to D960, it’s almost irrelevant to
add that the Impromptu which separates the two sonatas is delivered
with much greater charm.
D664, too, is rather more palatable, though hardly a first choice. I’m
not sure if this is the same recording as the one which was released
on an HMV LP in 1963, described then as restrained and very moving,
yet exhibiting the same tendency to slow tempi as D960, but the description
is apt, though it doesn’t take into account the barnstorming sections,
especially in the finale. Though recorded a decade earlier than D960,
the sound here has come up almost equally well.
If, despite all my caveats, Richter’s Schubert is right for you,
there’s another Praga Digitals disc containing Sonatas Nos.16
(D845) and 17 (D850) on PRD/DSD350067. My own reaction, I fear, can
be summed up in the last line of DH Lawrence’s poem Bats
- ‘But not for me’. You may, however, wish to try that Alto
recording for yourself via Naxos Music Library, if you can, before making
up your mind. It’s also available for streaming from Spotify.
See also reivew by Brian
Masterwork Index: Sonata
13 ~~ Sonata