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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor K 466 [33:05]
Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major K 595 [31:51]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Rondo in B-flat major WoO 6 [9:15]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislaw Wislocki (K 466)
Moscow Chamber Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai (K 595)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling (WoO 6)
rec. 25 & 26 April 1959, Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw (K 466); live 24 April 1966, Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow (K 595); 1962, Vienna (WoO 6) ADD stereo
ALTO ALC1414 [74:28]

Alto provides us here with a classic combination of two of Mozart’s greatest piano concertos. To use an operatic analogy, both are dark comedies, but K 466 is more Don Giovanni; it shares the Commendatore’s key of D minor and provides a bleak commentary upon mortality, whereas K 595 reflects the admixture of sparkling fun and bittersweet melancholy in Cosė fan tutte. They are played here by arguably the greatest pianist of the twentieth century, although Mozart was not necessarily his forte and he claimed to be bored by that composer. Resistant to studio recording, Richter cannot have been thrilled to discover that the producers in Warsaw had not been able to secure as good a piano as he would have liked which apparently obliged him to play less forcefully than was his habit – perhaps a felix culpa as some find his playing of Mozart piano concertos elsewhere heavy-handed, whereas here he is most sensitive and, by his standards, restrained.

I would not say that the accompaniment provided by the Warsaw forces to K 466 is the most polished or tonally warm; the orchestral opening is foursquare, lacking the kind of brooding tension the best conductors and orchestras can generate and there are some shrill strings in the finale, but it will do. Richter’s playing is elegant and delicate but never effete - and of course, technically, he is superb, runs and trills impeccably executed, despatching Beethoven’s cadenzas effortlessly. His speeds throughout are moderate and conventional, but it is his tonal subtlety, rhythmic precision and concentrated grip which confer distinction upon his playing. The sustained legato of the Romanze renders it relaxed and flowing, yet compelling, the Rondo finale is poetically couched in a concatenation of sonorous, bell-like phrases before its jubilant conclusion.

The orchestra in No. 27 is noticeably both more mellow in sound and tauter in ensemble, and the conducting is much better sprung. Richter certainly doesn’t sound bored with what he is playing; again, every bar is carefully shaped and dynamically shaded; the Larghetto is poised and lyrical; the roulades of the concluding Allegro are extraordinarily fluent and pearlescent.

Beethoven’s unfinished Rondo, completed by Czerny, is provided as a bonus. It is not Beethoven’s most inspired; indeed, at times it sounds like a pastiche of the ending to a Mozart concerto but it provides opportunity a-plenty for a virtuoso pianist such as Beethoven or Richter to show off his prestidigitation, especially in the concluding Presto. Musically however, the flowing Andante is the most attractive passage.

The stereo sound for K466 is fine for its era, if a bit mushy and removed, and the balance favours the piano too much. It is nonetheless superior to the harsher, live recording of K 595 where, although the balance is better, an audience member coughs and sneezes his way throughout and the piano is even more clangourous. Similarly, in the Rondo, the piano’s tone is a bit edgy and blaring; you have to reduce the volume considerably for that track. Still, it’s tolerable for the quality of playing.

The Alto label’s provision of recording dates and locations are often a bit cavalier and incomplete; I have provided above what I believe to be the correct details, which differ in several respects from what is on the back cover. For example, Richter recorded No. 20 in Warsaw not in 1961 but in 1959, the year before he toured the West and came to fame there – not that my corrections are so important.

Given the limitations of sound here and audience noise in the live concerto, set against the plethora of alternative, recommendable recorded versions, this is probably primarily for the Richter collector or completist, but it still showcases a great pianist in surprisingly poetic form.

Ralph Moore



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