Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Profil Compiles Schubert Performances by Sviatoslav Richter

 courtesy of Naxos of America

This past July the Profil label from Edition Günter Hänssler released a ten-CD album entitled Sviatoslav Richter Plays Schubert – Live in Moscow. For those interested in building up a comprehensive library of Richter recordings, that has to be a tempting title. The problem is that the compilation of useful metadata for Richter recordings is not always of the highest order, even when major record labels are involved. When we have collections compiled by third-party sources, we can easily establish what Richter was playing; but both where and when can be open to question, especially when different sources answer the question in different ways.

For this particular case, I came to these recordings through a download site that did not include the booklet that was supposed to accompany the CDs; and efforts to locate that booklet through Google were pretty much in vain. Nevertheless, Discogs provided a Web page that accounted for most of the information I required; and the rest I was able to obtain through Naxos of America, which is distributing this collection in the United States. Most importantly, Discogs managed to compile an itemization of which tracks were recorded when and where; and, since their Web page also notes the presence of a booklet in both German and English, I am willing to hypothesize that their track information came from that booklet.

On the basis of that information, I can then assert that “Live in Moscow” is wrong on both counts. Yes, it is true that Richter felt very negative about studio work, meaning that, given a recording with no background information, it would be reasonable to hypothesize that it was made at a concert performance. Nevertheless, thanks to the list on the Discogs page, I feel justified in claiming that eighteen of the tracks were recorded in a studio; and, to put a cherry on top of it, that studio was in Paris. The recordings there were made in both October of 1961 and the first half of 1963.

Furthermore, the recording on the last CD of the D. 813 set of variations in A-flat major for four hands on one keyboard was made at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1963. More specifically, it was recorded in the Aldeburgh Parish Church on June 20, 1964; and the other two hands were those of Benjamin Britten. This claim can be validated, because the same recording can be found on CD 14 of Decca’s “complete” collection, Britten The Performer. In fact the entire Decca CD is devoted to Richter and Britten playing D. 813 and two other Schubert four-hand compositions, the D. 940 fantasia in F minor and the D. 812 “Grand Duo” sonata in C major!

Having gotten all of that off of my chest, I can now set aside the Diogenes lamp I used in search of an honest account of the contents of the Profil collection. Far more important is the content itself. Some of Franz Schubert’s most adventurous work can be found in his compositions for solo piano, not only during the astonishing final year of his life but also in the preceding years. The recordings in this collection were made between December of 1949 and that 1964 visit to Aldeburgh; and, across all ten of these CDs, the attentive listener can relish the consistency of Richter’s clarity of execution. Thus, whether the music is the D. 145 collection of twelve waltzes or that monumental final piano sonata. D. 960 in B-flat major, represented by concert performances in both Moscow and Kiev, it is clear that the music itself and how it may be most effectively expressed are foremost in Richter’s mind.

However, beyond such “adulation by generalization,” I feel it worth pointing out a few factors that make this particular collection unique. Most interesting are the two different recordings of the first of the three D. 946 piano pieces (the impromptus that are not called impromptus). As it appears in the 1888 Breitkopf & Härtel collection of Schubert’s music (the one reproduced by Dover Publications), this is a ternary-form composition, whose outer section moves from E-flat minor to E-flat major and whose inner section is in B major. However, the first publication of this piece was in 1868. It was edited anonymously by Johannes Brahms, and it includes a second inner section in A-flat major. (In other words, the overall structure is ABACA.) Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalog provides the incipits for both of these inner sections; but the second is almost never performed. In this Richter collection, however, the listener has the opportunity to consider both versions and make up his/her own mind where preference is concerned!

The collection also includes seven of Schubert’s songs with mezzo Nina Dorliak as vocalist. Richter first accompanied one of Dorliak’s recitals in 1945, and they became close companions for the rest of his life, although they never married. These tracks provide a window on Richter’s talents as a pianist that are not easily encountered elsewhere. Once one adjusts to listening to Dorliak sing in Russian, they can be appreciated as gems in this overall collection.

Finally, just to be clear, this is in no way a “complete” or “comprehensive” collection. Both the D. 894 sonata in G major and the D. 959 sonata in A major are missing. Nevertheless, this is a compilation that deserves to be enjoyed for what it includes, rather than condemned for what it lacks.

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