courtesy of Naxos of America
This past July Urania Records released a two-CD album of recordings of concert performances made by pianist Sviatoslav Richter between 1956 and 1966. The selections have been arranged in such a way that the first disc is devoted entirely to the music of Franz Schubert, while all of the selections on the second disc are by Franz Liszt. Each of the individual pieces was recorded at a different concert; so the intention seems to have been to provide a CD-by-CD compare-and-contrast approach to these two composers.
This may seem like an unlikely coupling. However, while Schubert may not have been the flamboyantly extroverted recitalist that Liszt was, both men were decidedly forward-looking composers. Furthermore, two of the Schubert selections on that first CD were composed during his prodigiously productive and adventurous final year of life. Indeed the first tracks on that CD are devoted to his final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major; and, in what seems like a judicious effort of “parallel programming,” the second CD begins with Liszt’s only piano sonata.
It is also important to note that, regardless of matters of extroversion or introversion, both of these composers were capable of summoning up rhetorical devices of the highest order. When this music is properly played, the attentive listener is likely to find himself on the edge of her/his seat, no matter how familiar (s)he may be with the score itself. Richter was the sort of pianist who cared about whether or not you would sit up and take notice, and it is not difficult to appreciate the extent to which each of the selections in this collection exudes that demanding authority. Furthermore, the authority is reinforced with that clarity of execution that was such a key factor in establishing Richter’s reputation.
The Urania producers clearly appreciated these qualities in Richter’s recorded legacy. The D. 960 recording was made at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1964; and the first movement may well offer the slowest interpretation of “Molto moderato” that one is likely to encounter. Richter’s intention seems to be to remind the listener that Schubert’s overall intention was to establish a rhetoric of moderation in such a way that there are only a few occasions that “rock the boat,” so to speak; but they do so with an intensity that demands subsequent soothing with the return of that moderato. At the same time, Richter makes a convincing argument that, when he wished to do so, Schubert had a solid command of the ability to convey the impression of time standing still.
This contrasts sharply with the following selection, the D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasy in C major. This piece is suffused with manic qualities, almost as if Schubert is preparing the way for the Florestan side of Robert Schumann’s character that would soon follow. It is in this performance, which took place in Paris in 1963, that we can appreciate the clarity of Richter’s execution. One also gets the impression that, when the quieter reference to Schubert’s song of the same name arises, Richter approaches it with the same discipline that he would bring as an accompanist at a vocal recital. The Schubert set then concludes with one of Schubert’s venture into “impromptu structure” during the last year of his life, the second (in E-flat major) in the D. 946 set of three ternary-form piano pieces.
The Liszt sonata performance was also recorded in Aldeburgh, this time in the summer of 1966. It is the latest recording in this collection. It also provides abundant “food for thought” for those seeking parallels between Liszt and Schubert. Both of these sonatas were experimental in their respective times, and both were seeking new approaches to structure. The Liszt sonata, however, is a single uninterrupted movement. Every now and then a recording is released that uses track divisions to clarify structural boundaries for the curious listener. Unfortunately, this recording is not one of them; but Richter has his own gifts for escorting the attentive listener through Liszt’s structural framework.
The remainder of the Liszt CD presents selections from two of that composer’s best known collections. First there are five of the études from the 1852 Transcendental Études, taken from a performance in Prague in 1956. These are followed by three pieces from the three Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) suites, one from each of the respective “years.” These were taken from a performance in Moscow in 1958. With the exception of the first two of the études, these amount to Liszt exploring the idea of a tone poem as a solo piano composition. Indeed, several of his piano pieces that may be taken as tone poems would subsequently surface as orchestral music under the title Symphonische Dichtung (symphonic poem).
It would be fair to say that all eight of these offerings are finger busters. However, Richter has a way of drawing the attention to the technical challenges without dwelling on the efforts required to overcome them. Here again, it is because of his commitment to clarity that these pieces emerge as music worthy of attentive listening, rather than platforms for exhibitionist display. As a result, those who tend to take Liszt’s own capacity for exhibitionism as a necessary premise are likely to be convinced by Richter’s readings that there is more “genuine” music in these pieces than one might be inclined to expect.