courtesy of Naxos of America
This past April my “examination” of the collections of performances by Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter released by Profil discussed the recently issued collection of twelve CDs consisting of compositions by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. This had followed up on collections devoted entirely to Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, respectively. A little less that two weeks ago Profil released their latest Richter collection, this time featuring another “dynamic duo” from the nineteenth century, Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. Like Schumann and Brahms, Liszt and Chopin were both friends and colleagues with at least some shared thoughts about both composition and performance.
As was the case with the previous releases, almost all of the tracks came from performances taking place in Russia, primarily in Moscow. There are only a few studio recordings, as well as a few recordings made outside Russia. For the most part these are presented as “bonus tracks,” alternative interpretations of pieces included earlier on each of the CDs. The recordings were made between 1948 and 1961. The one exception to this “bonus rule” occurs on the last of the twelve CDs in the album. The last six tracks of the entire collection are devoted to the music of Karol Szymanowski, his Opus 21 (second) piano sonata in A major and three of his mazurkas.
Richter’s recitals did not take the “comprehensive” approach that has become increasingly popular among pianists since the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, where the Opus 28 preludes of Chopin are concerned, we do not experience the full traversal across all of the major and minor keys covered by the entire collection. Rather, Richter prepared his own “suite” of selections from the complete set, making his own choices as to how they should be ordered. Similarly, he prepared his own suite of eight of Liszt’s twelve “transcendental” études, again imposing his own ordering.
I have to say that, personally, I sympathize with Richter taking this approach to preparing a recital. Readers may recall that Scott Foglesong took a similar approach with the short pieces by Johannes Brahms that were collected and published as his Opera 116, 117, 118, and 119 in the recital he gave this past January. It is all very well and good to have recordings that collect all of the Chopin preludes or Liszt études “in one place,” because technology now makes it very easy to listen to the tracks selectively. In a concert setting, on the other hand, going “page-by-page through the book,” so to speak, often leaves the listener feeling that the whole experience amounts to “one damned thing after another,” often before the entire traversal has reached the three-quarters mark!
It is also worth noting that, particularly where Liszt is concerned, Richter tends to go for the “spirit” of the music, particularly when that spirit is wildly unconstrained, rather than the “letter” of the marks on paper. Again, this is a case in which, if a pianist wants to give a clinically precise account of the score, he would be better off pursuing that goal in a recording studio. Liszt may have used the adjective “transcendental” as a way of letting others know that “these are not your piano teacher’s study pieces;” but they also embody a “new age” of relationship between performer and listener that “transcends” the sorts of relationships that had been established by Schubert and Beethoven (just as Beethoven had “transcended” the sorts of relationships that had been established by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Personally, I find the Liszt recordings exhilarating examples of Richter letting his hair down in his approaches (back when he had the hair to do so).
The same can be said of his approach to Chopin, but my own personal reaction is that the impact is not registered as strongly. There are definitely moments that will make the attentive listener sit up and take notice (and it would definitely benefit many of the current breed of piano recitalists to get to know those moments and appreciate the nature of their impact). However, those moments do not arise with the same consistency that they do in the Liszt performances. There is even a sense that Richter is playing Chopin because he is expected to play Chopin (or, perhaps, because Soviet authorities felt it was important that “one of their own” should stand up to the “authority” granted to the likes of Arthur Rubinstein).
This may also explain why the “bonus tracks” allotted to Szymanowski, rather than Chopin, make for particularly satisfying listening experiences. Each of the three mazurkas that Richter selected from that composer’s Opus 50 collection serves up an almost shocking alternative point of view regarding what a mazurka is and what it can mean to listeners during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Equally impressive is the Opus 21 sonata, earlier than the mazurkas by about fifteen years but particularly impressive in the theme-and-variations approach of its second movement, with the variations culminating in a concluding fugue. This is a truly Janus-faced composition that looks back on traditions reaching at least as far back as Beethoven while, at the same time, making it clear that twentieth-century expressiveness must, of necessity, move on from the conventions of the nineteenth century, no matter how popular they were “at the box office.”