As I observed at the beginning of this month, my plan for writing about the 24-CD box set Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Warner Recordings was to divide the contents into three parts. The initial report focused entirely on solo and duo piano recordings, and this second account will turn to the concerto recordings. With one exception, these are all performances of a concerto for piano and orchestra. The exception is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 56, the so-called “triple” concerto, in C major, which is basically a concerto for piano trio and orchestra. This latter was clearly conceived as an “all-star” project, since Richter was joined by two equally prestigious Russian colleagues, both of whom he knew well: violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The recording also included “star conductor” Herbert von Karajan conducting a “star orchestra,” the Berlin Philharmonic.
Readers may recall that I mentioned the complete absence of Frédéric Chopin from the entire collection. Those who followed the account of solo and duo piano recordings may have noticed another absence, that of Johannes Brahms. Indeed, Brahms shows up only twice in the box set, one of which is the recording of his Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major. Brahms self-mockingly described this piece as “some little piano pieces” with a “little wisp of a scherzo;” but this was clearly his way of looking back on the no-holds-barred grandiloquence of his first concerto, Opus 15 in D minor. As just about everyone knows, Opus 83 is far from a lightweight undertaking; and it therefore runs the same risk of Opus 15, which is that both soloist and conductor are confronted with a strong temptation to wallow in its gushing sonorities.
Those who read about his solo recordings know that Richter was decidedly not a pianist given to wallowing; and the same can be said of his conductor for this recording, made in 1969 at the Salle Wagram in Paris, Lorin Maazel, leading the Orchestre de Paris. Indeed, Maazel shares with Richter the aesthetic precept that one should begin with a disciplined command of what is on the score pages and then figure out how to add expressiveness to the mix. The result is that the attentive listener is confronted with one of the clearest accounts of this concerto to find its way to a recorded document, but that clarity ultimately serves to disclose to that listener the full breadth of Brahms’ emotions without ever running the risk of overplaying any of them.
Nevertheless, one might come away thinking that, while both Richter and Maazel have a keen sensitivity to detail, they might both be lacking a sense of humor. That misgiving is put to rest by the recording of the same pianist, conductor, and orchestra playing Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto. This is the most high-spirited of Bartók’s three piano concertos. Both Richter and Maazel recognize this attribute and are not shy about letting the attentive listener know it. At any number of episodes in the unfolding of this concerto, one can imagine both men not only smiling to themselves but also smiling to each other.
There is a similar sense of shared experiences in the recording of both of them performing Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 55 (fifth) piano concerto in G major. Richter gave the world premiere performances of two of that composer’s piano sonatas, the seventh (Opus 83 in B-flat major, the second of the three “War” sonatas), which he learned in four days, and the ninth (Opus 103 in C major). (The latter was dedicated to Richter.) He was also the accompanist for Rostropovich’s world premiere performance of the Opus 119 cello sonata in C major; and, in one of the greater ironies in Soviet history, he and Oistrakh played the first violin sonata (Opus 80 in F minor) at the state funeral of Joseph Stalin. (On the other hand Richer also played at the funeral of Boris Pasternak, which definitely did not go down well with the Soviet authorities at that time!)
As we know, Prokofiev chose to return to the Soviet Union thinking that his life would be more comfortable there. It was anything but. Composed in 1932, Opus 55 predated that move; and it is generously endowed with a variety of sassy qualities that are much closer to Paris than Moscow or Leningrad. Richter’s performance of this concerto is again with Maazel, but this time the latter is conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The result is one of the more exciting accounts of the concerto and may stand as a document of Richter at his most cosmopolitan. However, to put things in a broader perspective, Opus 55 is also the “newest” piece in the entire collection.
In general it is clear that Richter is more comfortable in earlier centuries. Thus, in the nineteenth century we encounter the only piano concertos by Edvard Grieg, Antonín Dvořák, and Robert Schumann. Beethoven’s Opus 56 is complemented by only one other Beethoven concerto, Opus 37 (third) in C minor (which was composed in 1800). Crossing the threshold into the eighteenth century, we encounter two of the concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 482 in E-flat major and K. 503 in C major.
Finally, there are two concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach that most likely date from his time in Leipzig, BWV 1054 in D major and BWV 1058 in D minor. These were recorded at the Teatro Regio in Parma with another one of Richter’s close colleagues Yuri Bashmet (best known as a violist) conducting the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto. As was previously observed about Richter’s approach to the keyboard suites of George Frideric Handel, Richter is more interested in clarity than in the “historical accuracy” of instrumentation. Bashmet has clearly scaled his string resources to a size that complements Richter’s piano work in a way that allows the attentive listener to appreciate the interplay between soloist and ensemble. The result is that these accounts of Bach are as informative as those performances Richter gave of the preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
This brings us back to that “all-star” recording of Beethoven’s Opus 56. To be fair, the jury will probably stay out for some time to come over whether this is a concerto for three soloists or for a piano trio; and perhaps making that distinction does not matter very much. What matters most is that each soloist has his (male pronoun applies to this recording) say and no individual ever has a problem competing with either the orchestral ensemble or the other soloists. From that point of view, Karajan was probably the right conductor for this job. He not only gets all the ducks in a row, but then he manages to keep them there. This may be a “novelty act;” but there is still much to engage the attention of the serious listener.