Thursday, December 1, 2016

Warner’s Reissue of Sviatoslav Richter: Solo and Duo Piano Recordings

The title of the 24-CD box set is Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Warner Recordings, but the recordings were actually made on two other labels, HMV and Teldec, which are now Warner “properties.” This is one of several anthologies that have been planned and issued since last year, which was the centennial year of Richter’s birth. Other “complete” collections have been issued by Sony Classical (eighteen CDs), Universal (51 CDs from Decca, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon), and the Russian Firma Melodiya (50 CDs). In addition, Parnassus Records took the rather unique approach of releasing the full cycle of a series of recitals in 1973 that covered the 48 preludes and fugues of the two Books of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. This last effort was particularly interesting, since it presented all of the content on a single Audio DVD.

Ironically, Richter had a rather low opinion of the recording business. The author of his Wikipedia page claims that “most of Richter’s recordings originate from live performances,” which would mean that the Warner collection, which combines both concert and studio recordings, may amount to a rather unique sampling of his work. In that case it is important to note at the outset that, across this rather generous collection of recordings, there is not one track devoted to Frédéric Chopin. I suspect that this would cause many piano mavens to recoil in horror, but I have to say that I greeted the absence of Chopin with a bit of relief.

The fact is that, whether or not the sampling in this album is representative, there is no doubt that each selection is worthy of seriously attentive listening. The content is divided (not particularly systematically) into the categories of solo piano, piano duo, chamber music, song, and concerto. However, there is only one duo CD (which may well be the oddest of the entire set) and one of art song with Richter accompanying Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. As a result I plan to cover the full content of the Warner collection in three articles, adding the duo CD to the solo piano recordings and classifying art song as chamber music. This article will begin the examination with the solo and duo piano performances.

Taken as a whole, the collection is a balance of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The former is represented by sixteen keyboard suites by George Frideric Handel (only eight of which are played by Richter) and three piano compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (which is that peculiar duo CD). The nineteenth century is limited to Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann. It would probably be useful to account for these in chronological order.

The Handel selections were all recorded in concert at the Festival de Tours, held at the Château de Marcilly-sur-Maulne in France. These concerts offered a “tag team” approach to performing Handel keyboard suites with Richter alternating with Andrei Gavrilov. The result is one of the most refreshingly perceptive accounts of Handel on a modern piano. Both pianists attach paramount significance to giving clear accounts of every note that Handel committed to paper. This involves giving equal attention to the way in which Handel alternates between accompanied melody and more elaborate counterpoint. The result thus counts as a solid case of historical awareness, even if the instrument is not a “period” one.

The approach to Mozart could not be more different. These are duo performances with Elisabeth Leonskaja recorded under “studio” conditions (but not all in an actual studio). What makes the album peculiar, however, is that all the selections were written as keyboard solos, the K. 545 sonata in C major, the K. 533 sonata in F major, and the K. 475 fantasia in C minor. However, as the album cover describes, Richter and Leonskaja play these pieces “with freely added accompaniment for a second piano by Edvard Grieg.” To be fair, however, Grieg did more than add a second piano part; he also took away Mozart’s own approach to accompanying many of the themes in the original. The result is, to say the least, a rather bizarre nineteenth-century take on Mozart that demands a rather strong measure of sympathy from the listener. Such sympathy requires accepting this as a “historically informed” performance of Grieg, rather than Mozart, which may be asking a bit much, particularly among the Mozart-lovers!

When the repertoire moves into the nineteenth century, however, one is again confronted with the Richter that attaches paramount significance to clarity. This is particularly evident in his approach to Schumann’s second piano sonata (Opus 22 in G minor), which just keeps getting more and more demanding as it advances from one movement to the next. Richter is never fazed by these excesses and consistently plays with the intention of making sure that the listener does not get lost in the blur of notes. The same can be said of his approach to the Opus 17 fantasia in C major. Schumann may have dedicated this piece to Franz Liszt, but Richter never lets his execution devolve into overblown Lisztian rhetoric; and he plays the retrospective reflection on Beethoven’s Opus 98 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved) as if he had experience in accompanying a vocalist’s performance.

Thus, listening to any of these selections should serve to whet the appetite for the other genres covered by this collection.

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