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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in f minor (1878-9) [38:19]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Harmonies Poétiques et Réligieuses (1845-52): 1V. Pensée des morts [16:53]; 1X. Andante lagrimoso [8:37]
Ave Maria [5:33]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Borodin Quartet (Franck)
rec. December 1981, Pushkin Museum, Moscow (Franck); September 1984, Kloster Polling, Germany
PHILIPS PRESTO CD 4321422 [70:03]

I first became acquainted with these recordings in the days when our local library boasted an extensive recorded music section, which I regularly frequented. Unfortunately, in the name of progress, this little avenue of pleasure has now been closed off. Originally issued in 1991, this release has long been deleted, but thanks to a licensing agreement between Universal and Presto Classical of Leamington Spa, UK, it is back in circulation via a Manufacture on Demand service. I was amazed at the size of their back catalogue, but didn’t know what to expect. I needn’t have worried. The copies are identical to the originals, and the artwork and booklet notes are faithfully reproduced.

The Franck Piano Quintet is a performance of immense ardour and vigour, in which the players luxuriate in the lushness and melodic wealth of the composer’s writing. It’s a reading of emotional urgency that certainly packs a punch. Rarely have I heard such heartfelt passion and drama. The wistful calm and autumnal glow of the slow movement is spellbinding, and provides a contrast to the more heated and intense outer movements. Ideal balance between piano and strings adds to the overwhelming success of the performance.

What drew me to this CD when I first encountered it all those years ago was the 17 minute Pensée des morts, the fourth piece of Liszt’s Harmonies Poétiques et Réligieuses; it’s certainly the star of the show here. I had always admired Alfred Brendel’s 1976 Philips recording of this piece, that is until I’d heard the great Russian pianist’s take on it. Richter also plays the ninth piece of the set, Andante lagrimoso. The Ave Maria is not the B flat one (no. 2) from the set, but one dating from 1862 in E major. His profound and probing accounts of these rarely heard works set these performances apart. In Pensée des morts he expresses the deep sorrow and spirituality of the music without resorting to sentimentality. In the arpeggiated chords of the big tune in the second half, he achieves a transcendentally luminous tone. It is regrettable that Richter never took the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (no. 3) into his repertoire. This is probably my favourite piano work by any composer.

I’m not too sure whether Philips got their dates and venues correct for these recordings. They were certainly all recorded live, though this isn’t indicated. In the two Richter discographies that I have, the Franck dates from 13 December 1986, and was taped in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The Liszt recordings date from 17 August 1982.

These are truly remarkable recordings, in fine sound. Neither the Borodin Quartet nor Richter made commercial recordings of the works on offer, which adds to their value and importance. The live situation does confer that extra element of spontaneity and freshness on the music-making. Booklet notes are in English, German, French and Italian. All I can do is thank Presto for restoring these distinguished performances to the fold.

Stephen Greenbank



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