Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sviatoslav Richter Late in Life

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past March I wrote about a CD produced by SWR>>music based on live concert recordings from the 1993 Schwetzingen Festival, which is organized every summer by Germany’s Southwest Broadcasting, Südwestrundfunk (SWR). I was particularly interested in this release, since it involved Richter playing George Gershwin’s only piano concerto, along with Camille Saint-Saëns Opus 103 (“Egyptian”) concerto in F major. Almost exactly two months ago the SWR label (this time SWR>>classic) released a solo recital recording made the following spring (in May of 1994); and Richter’s choice of composers is just as interesting.

Indeed, the major composer on the album is Maurice Ravel, whose relationship with Gershwin amounted to a “mutual admiration society.” Ravel is represented by two of his most challenging solo piano suites, Valses nobles et sentimentales and Miroirs. Indeed, the second of those suites is so challenging that most of the pianists who approach it at all tend to confine themselves to its fourth movement, “Alborado del gracioso.” (Did Ravel decide to orchestrate it because he was dissatisfied with how pianists of his day were playing it?) At this recital Richter chose to precede Ravel with César Franck’s “Prélude, Choral et Fugue;” and he began the recital with nine short pieces from Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces collections, only four of which are included on this recent recording.

Richter was 79 at the time of this recital. However, his Wikipedia page observes that, even late in life, “Richter continued to perform some of the most demanding pieces in the pianistic repertoire,” which would definitely explain his interest in Ravel. It is also worth bearing in mind a quote (translated into English) from Richter, included in the Naxos of America advance material, discussing his approach to repertoire:
The interpreter is really an executer, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the essence of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected through him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.
In that context what makes this recital program particularly interesting is the difference in “intentions” among the contributing composers.

From that point of view, Ravel probably fares best among the three composers on the album. Richter clearly set himself the task of giving a clear account of every note that Ravel committed to manuscript paper; and, where these two particular suites are involved, that is no mean feat. Clearly, however, thoroughness is not the full story.

Whether or not Richter ever gave much attention to the theoretical writings of Heinrich Schenker (probably not), the attentive listener will recognize how Richter has identified what may be called a “hierarchy of embellishment” in Ravel’s scores. Simply put, there are those “core” notes from which “the essence of the work” is derived; but how those notes are embellished as much to do with how the music is expressed. Furthermore, the really good composers are the ones who know how to “embellish the embellishments;” and, in Schenker’s writings, what constituted a “masterwork” involved a disciplined command of multiple layers of embellishment.

What makes Ravel’s solo piano music so impressive is his ability to weave such complex “syntactic” structures without ever short-changing the need for a rhetorical stance from which those structures achieve their expressiveness. Richter’s words may suggest that his primary focus is on syntax; but, when one listens to these recordings of Ravel, one recognizes that Richter knew how to establish his own rhetorical stance based on his first prioritizing the syntax. From that point of view, his ability to take the same approach to Grieg’s pieces (most of which can be taken as miniatures) is just as impressive. Indeed, if there is any shortcoming on this album, it would be in Richter’s approach to Franck, which seems to have more to do with how Franck may have been acknowledging Johann Sebastian Bach than with the emergence of Franck’s own voice through that acknowledgment.

Those who have been following this site over the course of 2017 know that this has been a good year for serious listeners with an interest in Richter’s work. This “recital document” provides further reinforcement as to just how good the year has been. One cannot ask for a better account of just how powerful the “late Richter” performances could be.

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