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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
December Nights
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Oleg Kagan (violin)
Yuri Bashmet (viola)
Natalia Gutman (cello)
Anatoly Kamyshev (clarinet)
rec. 1985, State Pushkin Museum of Visual Arts, Moscow
MELODIYA MELCD1002204 [74:43 + 74:23]

This is the second volume in Melodiya’s ‘December Nights’ series, dedicated to the December Evenings Festival that takes place annually at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. As with the previous volume devoted to Robert Schumann, Sviatoslav Richter, the co-founder, features prominently. It was in 1981 that the Russian pianist, together with Irina Antonova the director of the Pushkin Museum, initiated these concerts. Since that time they have been an eagerly anticipated annual event. Richter’s concept was a series of chamber music concerts organized around a theme such as ‘Mozart’s Times’, ‘Rembrandt and Beethoven’ and ‘Russian Art and Music’, to name just a few. He assembled distinguished friends and musicians to perform chamber music, and he himself would give solo recitals and accompany lieder. In 1983 he staged two Britten chamber operas in a festival which took the theme of English music and painters. Richter died in 1997, yet these concerts continue to thrive to this day.

Unfortunately, the Schubert ‘Duo’ Sonata is the bad apple here, and fails to win me over. I’ve no issue with the sound quality, but interpretively this performance doesn’t work for me. Kagan says a few words by way of introduction before the sonata begins. Several months ago I reviewed a disc of piano and violin works by Schubert and Brahms, in which this sonata featured. The label was again Melodiya and the violinist was David Oistrakh, who was, incidentally Oleg Kagan’s teacher. The pianist in my nominated ‘Recording of the Month’ was Frida Bauer, and the year was 1970. Comparing the two readings side by side, the first movement of the Kagan/Richter is too slow and hesitant and doesn’t flow. The Scherzo is marred by Richter’s heavy-handed approach to the piano part, which should be light. He throws in a few declamatory and heavily accentuated chords which have no place. Unlike the Oistrakh/Bauer performance, this 1985 reading doesn’t smile and there is no joy to be found. Maybe they were having an off-night. All of these performances, we are told, are first time on CD. There is another performance with Kagan/Richter from three weeks later (31 December 1985), again live from the Pushkin Museum on Live Classics (LC 5954). I haven’t heard it but it would be interesting to compare the two to find out if the same problems beset this later airing.

Richter and Natalia Gutman enjoyed a close personal friendship, indeed he was once heard to remark that she was the greatest cellist in the world. I have always enjoyed her playing, and a rare live recording I have of her playing the Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme, with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by David Oistrakh, is the finest performance of this work I have ever heard. The Chopin Sonata, one of the composer’s rare forays into something other than solo piano music, is an unmitigated success, with this performance having much to recommend it. The ardent passion in the first movement is delivered with spontaneity and eloquence. Gutman’s rich and burnished tone is well-suited to this score. There is a great sense of understanding and unity between the two players. The eloquent and soulful account of the Largo movement cannot fail to move the listener. It’s disappointing that they rather unimaginatively choose the last two movements to repeat as an encore. I find this a rather strange practice. I’m sure the audience would have appreciated something different. The two players later took the sonata to Tours, France in June 1986.

As for the Schumann Trio here it must surely receive one of the most dramatic and exhilarating performances ever recorded. The players seem to be inspired by the presence of an audience to produce something truly memorable. Kagan achieves a wonderful beauty of tone in the opening of the first movement. It’s all well-rehearsed with detailed matching phrases and superb control of dynamics. The slow movement is the centre of gravity, with the players bringing out all the score's desolation, isolation, loneliness and vulnerability. The work ends with an energized romp of a finale.
 
Richter joins Anatoly Kamyshev for the Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 73 and Yuri Bashmet for the Fairy Tale Pictures, for Viola and Piano, Op. 113. The pianist had had the Op. 73 in his repertoire since 1969, when he partnered Pierre Fournier in the more well-known cello and piano version at the Summer Festival in Tours. Both works make pleasing additions, with memorable performances in first-rate sound quality. The set ends with two of Chopin’s larger solo piano works, which Richter frequently programmed throughout his career. The Polonaise-Fantaisie is a little ragged, with several finger-slips.

It is very apt that I am reviewing this release at this time, approaching Christmas. What better way to spend a December evening.

Stephen Greenbank

Track-listing
CD 1 [74.43]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 73 [11:10] (1)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A major for Piano and Violin (“Duo”), D 574/Op. posth. 162 [24:17] (2)
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 65 [29:45] (3)

CD 2 [74.23]
Robert SCHUMANN
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63 [33:36] (4)
Fairy Tale Pictures, for Viola and Piano, Op. 113 [15:47] (5)
Frédéric CHOPIN
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61 [13.20] (6)
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 [11.34] (6)
Sviatoslav Richter (all)
Anatoly Kamyshev (1)
Oleg Kagan (2, 4)
Natalia Gutman (3, 4)
Yuri Bashmet (5)
rec. 15 December 1985 (1, 4); 7 December 1985 (2, 5); 29 December 1985 (6) 30 December 1985 (3)