Sviatoslav Richter, Piano: Live Recordings of Works by Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff

Richter BBC Legends

Documentary filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon may have described Sviatoslav Richter best when he labeled him an "enigma." Though possessing a robust physique and one of the  most wondrous pianistic facilities in the history of recording, Richter epitomized the neurotic artist, often appearing fumbling, even physically maladroit, both in interviews and on stage. Despite his almost self-defeating perfectionism, he preferred setting live rather than studio recordings to disc. And when he did so, the results ran the gamut from strangely unspontaneous to revelatory. Hot-cold. That's how quickly his blood temperature could change, even in the same performance.

Were all these recordings on the level of the Rachmaninoff, they would be among the finest of the century. Featured here is a selection of 13 preludes from op. 23 and 32 that Richter performed at England's Aldeburgh music festival. 

Rarely have I heard a sadder lamentation than Richter's haunting account of the B minor (op. 32, no. 10), Rachmaninoff's pining for the dacha and steppes of his native land. Certainly Moiseivitsch's staid, punfunctory rendering, though supposedly approved of by the composer himself, lights no candle to Richter's. By a different token, Richter shows us why the B-flat major (op. 23, no. 2) should have been written for him and him alone; the command he has over the chordal fireworks at the climax is jaw-dropping. How can Kissin and Valentina Lisitsa not be embarrassed to play it after hearing this? (Answer: They're too brain-dead and narcissistic to care, so there's a good chance they haven't.) Reminding me of Chopin's disjunct melody in his 19th prelude, Rachmaninoff's A-flat major prelude (op. 23, no. 8) floats like an albatross's wings buoyed by a zephyr; this is a relatively unheralded work that should be played more by people who have something to say about it (i.e., not Ashkenazy), and Richter's has a seamless elegance that is rarely matched in other renditions. These three are the highlights for me, though there are many beautiful moments elsewhere in Richter's prelude performances as well. The famed G minor (op. 23, no. 5) might be the only weak point, but I hasten to add that here he must compete with Rachmaninoff's own version and, well, even the greatest titan is no match for a god. 

While listening to the other performances, I simply mumbled "why." Why, when Richter has such control over nuance, balance, phrasing, and texture in Rachmaninoff, should those qualities be so lacking in the other interpretations represented here? I won't say too much about the Chopin nocturnes, since few would identify him as one of the great performers of the Polish piano rhapsode's works. (Like Horowitz, Richter felt compelled to play a lot of Chopin as most pianists do, but his performances often sound as if he deems it a necessary chore.) Let me just say that his phrasing, while often musical, sounds very tight in places. But it is his performances of the German literature that most baffled me, particularly since this is generally cited as his forte, perhaps even more so than the Russian oeuvre.

I was particularly puzzled by the Haydn. Richter once stated that he preferred Haydn to Mozart, whom he claimed not to understand. Hearing his performance of this E major sonata (Hob. XVI/22, which, incidentally, is not one of Haydn's best), I would posit that maybe it wasn't just Mozart but the overall classical-period style that he didn't grasp. The first movement sounds rushed and slapdash (particularly for a moderato), lacking Haydn's essential geniality. He attacks the chords with ferocity where there should be boldness. In the introspective E minor middle movement, the most interesting of the three, his tone sometimes plumbs the tragic depths but his rhythm is forced, treating phrase endings with constipation rather than assurance. And the minuet has little of the pointiness one would expect of a classical dance; it's too rounded off (his overly lush pedaling doesn't help). One gets the feeling that since playing this pithy work of Haydn's is as easy for Richter as walking is for most other people, he didn't bother to reflect too much on the musical details.

Historically, it would seem that Richter's greatest affinity among the "Big Three" classical composers was for Beethoven. A number of the thirty-two sonatas were in his repertory, and he regularly recycled them for recital programs. However, neither the sonata (B-flat Major, op. 22) nor the weighty "Eroica" variations on this disc bear witness to his stature as a great Beethovenien. Indeed, both Backhaus and Brendel would, in very different ways, put these performances to shame. This is not to say there aren't lovely moments, particularly in the more reflective misterioso sectionsthe slow movement of the sonata, in particular, is wonderfully earnest and intimate. Yet in so many other places, the sonata suffers from bland phrasing and dynamics, and the minuet and allegretto movements are rather graceless and clunky. One would think that the Eroica variations would be right up Richter's alley. I can hear the foundations of a great performance here, but why does he bang so? The characteristic repeated three-note phrase, which emerges in the theme and recurs throughout, should surprise, not piledrive. Again, some of the slower variations succeed, sometimes whispering eerily, but then he botches the contrast by struggling against the music in the faster ones, handling them with bombast rather than nobility. For the epic fugue in the conclusion, he needs a lesson in sorting out polyphonic textures. His countrywoman, Maria Yudina, could have given him one.

Much the same is true of the Schumann symphonic etudes. Sublimity and profundity in the slower, more lugubrious variations often give way to heavy-handedness. In the faster variations, I hear little of Schumann's conquering heroism and brusque vigor as I do in Cortot's interpretation. Yes, Richter's a bear, but a piano-playing bear must  learn to rein in his strength if it wants to make music. The end result is a Schumann that lacks the menacing edge of a mind in the throes of madness. As in the Beethoven Eroica, I hear the beginnings of a masterful conception, but the performance is not bearing fruit because of over-zealous beating of the keyboard into submission. It comes to a head in the majestic coda, where almost all of the dotted rhythms are downright sloppy as a result of an overly fast tempo. Not to mention that little nuance is possible because it's all much too loud. As with so much of the rest of the playing on this disc, if he had relaxed more  and relied on well-placed accents rather than brute volume, his awesome technical equipment would have blown almost all other pianists out of the water on such a piece.

It's a terrible shame to have anything bad to say about a talent of this magnitude. To some extent, I think Richter's greatness was hampered by modernity, the purist critics of the twentieth-century musical establishment who started this silly carping about the letter of the score. So much so that when Richter discovered he'd been playing an F instead of an F-sharp in the middle movement of the Bach Italian concerto, he insisted that the recording be re-released with an erratum. God, how silly. I mention this as an attempt to illustrate why there often seems such angst and tightness in his playing, but who knows? Such hypotheses will remain an attempt, and I'm fine with that. Even when Richter's maddeningly inconsistent, he's never dull. Nothing enigmatic about that. That, I can say with certainty, is a rare thing indeed.

Joe's Grade: B      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016