courtesy of Naxos of America
Earlier this month this site reported on the ten-CD album entitled Sviatoslav Richter Plays Schubert – Live in Moscow, released on the Profil label from Edition Günter Hänssler this past July. At the beginning of September, Profil followed up with the release of Sviatoslav Richter Plays Beethoven, a twelve-CD collection consisting primarily of piano sonatas. This is not a complete account of all 32 sonatas, but it definitely touches on the most familiar ones. There are also four sets of variations, including the monumental Opus 120 collection of 33 variations on the theme provided by Anton Diabelli. Shorter pieces include rondos and bagatelles with no intentions of thoroughness.
Indeed, the closest Richter gets to being complete is in the final two CDs, which cover the five cello sonatas, which he performs with Mstislav Rostropovich. There are also two concertos and the WoO 6 orchestral rondo. Each of these three selections is performed with a different ensemble and conductor. The Opus 15 concerto in C major is played with the USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra led by Kurt Sanderling. Hermann Abendroth conducts the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in the Opus 37 concerto in C minor. Finally, Kirill Kondrashin leads the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in the brief performance of the WoO 6 rondo in B-flat major.
As was the case with the Schubert recordings, all performances are made with a contemporary piano. The allows Richter to explore very wide swings in dynamic level; and, on the basis of all of the listening I have achieved, I would suggest that his Beethoven swings are noticeably broader than those he applied to his Schubert interpretations. Whether this amounted to Richter’s impression that Beethoven was writing for the “mass appeal” of concert halls, while Schubert was more directed toward the intimacy of the salon, is left for those better informed of the history to resolve.
Whatever the case may be, Richter is never shy about being emphatically assertive in his approach to Beethoven. This definitely gets a rise out of audiences. However, the many gestures of wit that can be found across much of Beethoven’s repertoire, tend to get cast into the shadows, if one is aware of them at all. To be fair, however, all of these recordings were made between 1947 and 1963, a time when audiences expected Beethoven to be “heroic” rather than witty. Richter knew how to give his audiences what they wanted, and he provided it with a consistently solid technique through which clarity is the highest priority.
As was the case with the Schubert collection, there are couplings of live and studio recordings for six of the sonatas. The live recordings were made in Russia. As was the case with Schubert, there are also studio recordings from Paris, as well as one each from London and New York. My guess is that comparisons will only appeal to those whose interest in Richter goes to extreme levels. For the rest of us, this collection makes for an excellent time machine. We may not embrace all of the aesthetic values that dominated the twentieth century, but Richter’s performances could not provide a better opportunity to identify those values and take them on their own terms.