Those of my generation probably recall Urania as an overseas record label that was available at shops that tended to have a generous collection of classical music albums. Apparently, Urania has designated itself “the original Italian label of classical music.” With that legacy in mind, there now seems to be a Urania Arts CD label, dedicated to rescuing recordings of historical significance from the vault and reissuing them as compact discs.
Recently Naxos of America took on the American distribution of Urania releases, and one of the Urania Arts recordings was impossible to resist. It was a two-CD set of seven piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven recorded at five different recitals given by Sviatoslav Richter. The album cover gives pride of place to “the last three piano sonatas,” all of which were performed at a recital in Leipzig in 1963:
All of the remaining sonatas were each recorded at a different recital as follows:
- Opus 26 (“Funeral March”) in A-flat major: Kiev 1959
- Opus 10, Number 3 in D major: Bucarest, 1960
- Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) in F minor: New York, 1960
- Opus 31, Number 2 (“Tempest”) in D minor: London 1961
The earliest of these recordings were monaural, while the later ones were stereophonic.
Those who have been following my recent interest in following Richter recordings (almost all of which were taken from concert performances) know that I have been particularly attracted to the clarity that he brings to his performances, whether he is playing music as early as one of the keyboard suites of George Frideric Handel or as late as one of Sergei Prokofiev’s “war” sonatas. Where Beethoven is concerned, those who follow his piano music parallel those who follow the string quartets by dividing the canon into “early,” “middle,” and “late” periods. The producers of this album clearly wanted to stress the “late” period; and the Opus 10 selection is the only one from the “early” period. Nevertheless, there is considerable diversity across these two CDs; and it would be fair to say that, where attentiveness is concerned, Richter does not “play favorites.” Instead, he always seems to know how to home in on the ideas that Beethoven chose to explore and then disclose the resulting explorations to make them clearly evident to the attentive listener.
It goes without saying that those explorations are at their most extensive in the last sonatas. Indeed, so much is disclosed in those sonatas that it can be challenging to sit through a program of all three of them without at least some of the symptoms of cognitive fatigue. Nevertheless, Richter was not the first to program them in a single recital; and he is far from the last. Thus, one of the virtues of this album is that one can listen to those sonatas individually.
That attentive listener who chooses to do so will almost inevitably be drawn into how much thought has gone into each performance over such a broad range of scale. There are individual phrasings that are decidedly unique but definitely make sense on their own merits, rather than as personal idiosyncrasies. At the same time, Richter clearly knows how to negotiate those extended variations in the final movement of Opus 111 in such a way as to communicate just how inventive Beethoven was while remaining disciplined not only to the constraints of the underlying theme but also the organization of the entire movement as a coherent journey.
Yes, I know there is a prodigious abundance of recordings of each of the sonatas in this collection; but these are far from “business as usual” performances, not by exploiting eccentric quirks but through a disciplined pursuit of what is actually going on amidst all of those notes.