Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Company Sviatoslav Richter Keeps for Chamber Music

This final report on the recordings in the 24-CD box set Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Warner Recordings will deal with the performances of chamber music, including the one performance of art song. When one considers how a single individual approaches chamber music, one must first take into account the company (s)he is keeping for those performances. Only seven of the CDs in the collection offer such performances; and it is interesting that they involve only three sets of partners.

The most familiar of these (and the only one from the “Western world”) is the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. devoted entirely to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 33, the collection of fifteen songs based on Ludwig Tieck’s poems written for the German romance Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence (the romance of Magelone the Fair and Peter Count of Provence). The most familiar Russian partners are the members of the Borodin Quartet, violinists Mikhail Kopelman and Andrei Abramenkov, violist Dmitri Shebalin, and cellist Valentin Berlinsky. The least familiar for most listeners will probably be the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan.

Nevertheless, familiarity aside, Kagan is responsible for the most fascinating CD in the entire box set. He collaborates with Richter on five Mozart sonatas, K. 378 in B-flat major and K. 379 in G major on one CD and K. 306 in D major, K. 404 in C major (just an Andante followed by an Allegretto), and the unfinished K. 372 in B-flat major on a second CD,  and two Beethoven sonatas, Opus 24 (“Spring”) in F major and Opus 23 in A minor, on a single CD. However, the real interest lies in the CD devoted entirely to Alban Berg’s 1925 chamber concerto, scored for piano, violin, and thirteen wind instruments. Richer and Kagan perform this with instrumentalists of the Moscow Conservatory conducted by Yuri Nikolayevsky.

Richter’s Wikipedia page covers the extensive breadth of his repertoire, including the names of Berg and Anton Webern but not that of Arnold Schoenberg. However, finding performances from the Second Viennese School is not easy matter. This particular Berg recording was made in December of 1977 at the Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris, known best for the plays that were first performed there; and it is worth speculating that the concerts from which this recording was made were arranged by Pierre Boulez. It is an impressively visceral account of Berg’s score, perhaps even more visceral than the Ensemble Intercontemporain recording that Boulez would make much later with Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zuckerman. (From a personal point of view, this is the first time I found myself listening to the piece and feeling that it made sense to me.)

This is not to write off any of the other chamber music recordings in this collection. Richter’s approach to Mozart and Beethoven with Kagan definitely has not suffered as a result of their attentiveness of Berg. Another personal observation is that one of my favorite vinyl albums was of a recital given by Fischer-Dieskau with Richter in Innsbruck in October of 1973 at which he sang eighteen of Hugo Wolf’s settings of poems by Eduard Mörike. I was delighted when that recital recording emerged on a PENTATONE CD, and I was just as pleased to encounter their partnership in dealing with Brahms.

However, I suspect that Richter is at his best in his balance with the Borodin Quartet players, all of them in a performance of Robert Schumann’s Opus 44 piano quintet in E-flat major and three of them in Franz Schubert’s D. 667 (“Trout”) quintet. Once again, clarity is of the essence in Richter’s approach; and it is through that clarity that the intense expressiveness of both of these pieces reveals itself. Perhaps that is what is so impressive about these Richter recordings: He knew how to make Berg sound as expressive as Schumann while also making Schumann sound as intricately conceived as Berg.

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