Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No.21 in B flat, D960 (1828) [46:51]
Impromptu in A flat, D899 No.4 [7:26]
Piano Sonata No.13 in A, D664 (1819) [24:47]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. 24 September 1972 (D960) 10 June 1956 (D899) 10-11 June 1962 (D664). ADD/DSD.
PRAGA DIGITALS SACD PRD/DSD350063 [79:19]
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 7191).
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 Reinhart
Richter’s Schubert has its fervent admirers but I’m not among them.
Masterwork Index: Sonata 13 ~~ Sonata 21
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