Monday, May 7, 2018

Karl Richter: Organist and Conductor

courtesy of Naxos of America

During my student days the name “Richter” bore a rather pleasant ambiguity when it came to talented musicians. The name is now most likely to be associated with the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who has been receiving a generous amount of attention on this site, due primarily to the anthologies that have been released on the Profil label. However, when it came to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly the choral works, the name more likely referred to the German conductor Karl Richter and the recordings he made for Archiv Produktion, a subsidiary of Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft that specialized in music from the Baroque and earlier periods.

The decades that followed the awarding of my doctoral thesis saw major changes in the rise of “historically informed” performance. Archiv shifted its attention to a new generation of conductors; and Richter became a somewhat quaint reminder of the “bad old days” when performers did not know better. As a result, my curiosity was piqued when I learned that Profil had released a Karl Richter Edition album around the middle of last month. The album featured Richter as an organist taking the solo parts in a compilation of the two sets of organ concertos that George Frideric Handel had published.

Each was a collection of six concertos (the “standard number” for publications at that time). The first was Handel’s Opus 4, including the concertos with catalog numbers HWV 289–294. The second was Opus 7, covering catalog numbers HWV 306–311. As can be seen in how these pieces were cataloged in the Händel-Werke-Verzeiches (HWV) catalog, there is a discontinuity. Handel composed other organ concertos, including a so-called “2nd Set” of six; but the twelve concertos that Richter recorded were the only ones that saw publication.

Richter does double duty on these recordings, also conducting an ensemble known only as the “Karl Richter Chamber Orchestra.” The original vinyls were released in 1959 on the Teldec label, the result of a partnership between German Telefunken and British Decca. This probably overlapped the time when Richter was making Archiv recordings with the Münchener Bach-Orchester. If he had recorded the Handel concertos with that group, it would have been necessary for the group to change its name. The other possibility is that these recordings were made with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, whose name may have been changed because of the ensemble’s association with another label.

Reflecting on that “bad old days” epithet, those who have become used to current approaches to historically-informed performance are likely to find the sonorities on these recordings unduly heavy. There are far more strings (particularly basses) in the ensemble than one expects to hear these days; and they tend to be balanced by more ranks of pipes being called into action. On the other hand Richter seems to have appreciated the extent to which Handel himself would have colored his own performances with improvisation, even when it just involved inserting embellishments that were never documented in the published scores. Thus, if one is willing to adjust to that overall heaviness, one can still appreciate the extent to which, on the basis of his own available knowledge, Richter could evoke the spirit of Handel’s time in a manner that Richter’s own listeners would have found delightfully informative.

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