Thursday, April 6, 2017

Live from Locarno: it’s Sviatoslav Richter!

Almost exactly a month ago, Naxos of America announced the release of a concert recording of a performance deemed to have significant historical value by many of the admirers of the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. The recital took place in Locarno in the Italian region of Switzerland on September 18, 1966. The venue was the church of San Francesco, which was secularized in 1814 (explaining the use of a lower-case “c”). The concert was produced and broadcast by Radiotelevisione della Svizzero italiano.

The CD of this concert was originally produced by the Italian Ermitage record label, based in Bologna. Last year Ermitage was added to the “distribution family” of Naxos of America as Ermitage / Symphonia. The impact of that distribution has not yet propagated to However, this Richter CD does have a Web page; and, presumably, sales of new copies of this recording will now be effected through Naxos of America. Meanwhile, that same Web page includes a customer review (filed from Venezuela), which will give the curious a good idea as to why this recording has attracted so much enthusiasm.

At the very least it provides an excellent document of Richter at his most vigorous. This is most evident in the final selection, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 82 (sixth) sonata in A major, the first of his three “war” sonatas. Three of the sonata’s four movements are dominated by intensely martial rhetoric, reinforced by Prokofiev’s unrelenting use of dissonance. Relief only comes during the waltz of the third movement, whose expressiveness suggests that it could have served either of Prokofiev’s romantic ballets, Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella. Richter’s sensitivity in playing this movement is all the more evident in its contrast with the unrestrained aggression of the other three movements.

Equally energetic is Richter’s approach to the last two of the four Brahms selections on the program, the G minor ballade (the third of the six Opus 118 pieces) and the E-flat major rhapsody (the last of the four Opus 119 pieces). Here, again, Richter’s intensity is highlighted through its contrasts with the far more sensitive rhetoric of the first two selections, the C major capriccio (the last of the eight Opus 76 pieces) and the E minor intermezzo (the fifth of the seven Opus 116 fantasies). Readers may recall that I singled out Richter’s approach to Brahms’ Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major as a high point of the 24-CD box set Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Warner Recordings; and his performance of these four shorter pieces is just as impressive.

Those who know their Richter may be somewhat surprised by the opening selection, Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 49 (third) sonata in D minor. This sonata provides a useful reminder that Weber was one of the earliest voices in the rise of the Romantic movement that occupied most of the nineteenth century. There is a certain Janus-faced quality to this sonata, looking back of how the “Classical style” had advanced through the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven and seeking out its own way to advance in new directions. Weber’s role in the rise of Romanticism is often overlooked, but Richter’s performance makes it clear that the pianist did not wish that role to be ignored. He clearly saw himself as an advocate for Weber’s assets, and he succeeded admirably.

If the new Naxos of America release has a flaw, it is in the accompanying booklet. This may well simply be a translation of the Italian text for the original Ermitage release. However, the only reference to this recording having come from a live performance identifies the city as Lugano, rather than Locarno; and the date of the performance is never given. This is one of those recordings that is likely to have high appeal to collectors, so it is a bit unfortunate that the sort of metadata that collectors tend to seek has been neglected.

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