Sunday, May 21, 2017

DIVOX Releases Historic Recordings of Richter Playing Prokofiev

As was observed when this site first began to document different sources for the legacy of recordings of pianist Sviatoslav Richter, Richter did not think much of recording studios. As a result, the vast majority of available recordings were made in concert. Sometimes the circumstances of those recordings can be as interesting as the performances being captured. Such is the case with a two-CD album released by DIVOX this past Friday. The title of the album is Musical Friendship, referring to the relationship that Richter had with composer Sergei Prokofiev.

The circumstances behind these recordings definitely deserve to be singled out for attention. The sources come from two recitals that Richter gave in Japan in the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Hall on December 2, 1980 and June 3, 1981, respectively. Present at both performances were representatives of Yamaha equipped with nothing more than a single cassette recorder. They were there with Richter’s permission. At the first recital they recorded Prokofiev’s last completed piano sonata, his Opus 103 in C major, along with a selection of five pieces from his Opus 95, Opus 97, and Opus 102 collections of transcriptions of music from his Opus 87 score for the ballet Cinderella. The second recital coupled the Opus 82 sonata in A major (the first of the three “war” sonatas) with an extended variety of short pieces, including ten of the pieces collected from the twenty Opus 22 Vision fugitives (fugitive visions). It is unclear whether Richter played music by any other composer at either of these recitals, but the Prokofiev selections would have given both performer and listeners enough of a workout for one evening.

Prokofiev was, himself, a prodigious pianist and may well have enjoyed writing pieces that would challenge other pianists to rise to his level of skill. However, Richter was 22 years younger and Prokofiev; and the composer’s ego probably enjoyed the idea of a younger pianist taking on the challenges he had set. Richter probably first came to Prokofiev’s attention when he gave the first concert performance of Opus 82 in October of 1940, about half a year after Prokofiev played the sonata for the first time for his colleagues. To honor Prokofiev’s 55th birthday shorty after the end of World War II, Richter performed the complete cycle of all three “war” sonatas.

Richter may thus have planned these two concerts in Tokyo as a memorial event to honor Prokofiev. When these recordings were first made available for public release in 1985, Richter included a statement acknowledging the modest conditions of the technology used for making the recordings. He then concluded:
However, I feel that they deserve to be made available to a broader public for purely artistic reasons.
He then attached his signature to the statement:

From the accompanying booklet

The result is an album that may be said to pit the music lovers against the audiophiles. The latter, sadly, seem to confine their attention only to the optimum removal of noise from any captured signal. Any information conveyed by that signal is purely secondary. The rest of us, on the other hand, have no trouble appreciating the signal for the information itself, regardless of whether not it is being impeded by noise. The fact is that the mastering of the recordings on these two CDs is excellent, and one would have to be the most rabid audiophile to complain of any problems with noise.

Ultimately, the essence of “signal” involves what may be Richter’s most salient quality. Whether he is playing George Frideric Handel or Prokofiev, his highest priority is always one of giving a clear account of what the composer left for him in the form of marks on paper. This is not to say that he is not interested in giving expressive performances. He just never wanted to let his expressiveness subordinate the “letter of the text” that he was performing.

This issue is particularly critical where Prokofiev is concerned. As has already been observed, the composer had a high opinion of his own virtuosity. However, when he was wearing his composer hat, so to speak, he knew that there was more to the act of making music than virtuoso display. He had his own ways of balancing these priorities, and it is probably the case that his friendship with Richter derived from Prokofiev’s appreciation that the pianist was willing to respect the composer first and then pursue his own expressive talents (which must have registered with Prokofiev) second. The result on these two CDs is thus a deeply moving account of the significance of such a relationship between composer and pianist; and DIVOX deserves recognition for making that account available, presumably after having committed to some serious restoration efforts.

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