Classical Reissue Reviews

Richter in America = Works of BEETHOVEN & BRAHMS – Richter, p./Chicago Sym./Leinsdorf – Urania (2 CDs)

The much-awaited American debut of Sviatoslav Richter in 1960 still emanates the sparks and roars of a colossal lion at the keyboard.

Published on January 22, 2013

Richter in America = Works of BEETHOVEN & BRAHMS – Richter, p./Chicago Sym./Leinsdorf – Urania (2 CDs)

Richter in America = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3; Piano Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 22 in F Major, Op. 54; Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”; BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83 – Sviatoslav Richter, piano/ Chicago Sym. Orch./ Erich Leinsdorf – Urania Widescreen Collection WS 121.175 (2 CDs), 49:55, 71:20 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

“Wait until you hear Richter!” had been the promise of the touring Russian pianist Emil Gilels in 1955, when the Soviet ice had thawed enough for cultural contact. And in 1960, we did in fact experience the overwhelming power and consummate control of Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997), whose concert appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and Boston) were captured by both CBS and RCA, respectively. The three Beethoven piano sonatas on disc one – the C Major, E Major, and F Major – derive from 19 October 1960.

If girth and raw energy mark the outer movements of the C Major Sonata, there appear no less momentous the relaxed episodes which assume a diaphanous luminosity under Richter, especially in his liquid triplets and arpeggios. The Beethoven runs become sheer bravura, Beethoven’s youthful, personal virtuosity made manifest. The second movement, Allegretto, of the E Major Sonata provides a revelation in its deliberately slow tempo and marcato approach, since its funereal affect now links it with the Op. 26 Sonata in somber majesty and poignant harmonic shifts. The entire Op. 54 F Major Sonata assumes a witty ironic perspective, the viewpoint of Beethoven as appreciated by Prokofiev. Despite the hard, even granite lines Richter projects, we find a great sympathy and warm urgency in these readings, architecturally stout and often frenetically propelled. The audience virtually howls with delighted enthusiasm in praise of this explosive musical phenomenon.

The Beethoven “Appassionata” Sonata (29-30 November 1960) quickly became a Richter signature piece, taken at ever increasingly bouts of supersonic speed, often to the detriment of the low F’s in the left hand. But the savage tempests Richter could unleash – even in studio environs -  more than compensate for any fallibility of technique. Intimacy and introspective musing could, stopping mid-thought, erupt like Vesuvius into molten floes of uncompromising expressivity. The “fate” motif – in seeming sympathy with the Fifth Symphony – explodes with an insistent (Neapolitan) sense of Nemesis as ennobled by a context of existential and even lyric drama.

The Andante con brio, for nobility of line and innate dignity of expression in a series of variations, has had few equals in keyboard performance, although I have always been as enamored of the Robert Casadesus version as of Richter’s.  Warmth and light suffuse the theme and variations, a fair respite from the outer movements’ confrontation with demonic forces. Nothing subtle about the segue to the volatile last movement, with its ostinati and whirling eddies of emotional energy. Once Richter establishes his basic pulse, the remainder follows as the night the day. Moments of emotive clarity and lyric consolation cede or are swept away before an onrush of titanic, inexorable momentum. Once again, the “fate” motif exerts itself, interrupted by a madcap dance or perverse march, depending on one’s acquiescence to primal forces. The Presto section proves too much for human resistance, so let Prometheus have his due, and let the fires burn into our collective memory.

There had been some discussion of Richter’s collaborating with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic on the Brahms B-flat Piano Concerto, but fate stepped in and took Mitropoulos away from us permanently in November 1960.  The version we have with Erich Leinsdorf (17 October 1960) from Chicago certainly serves as a testament to the grand style, if not to the kind of Dionysian wisdom Mitropoulos could generate. The monumentality of the playing compels our attentions, technical and dramatic, with Richter’s applying the same spacious granite he imparted to his esteemed version of the Tchaikovsky B-flat Minor Concerto with Karajan and the Vienna Symphony for DGG. Even so, those periods of stillness and repose – as in the liquid sections of the first and the third movements, the latter with cello obbligato – bespeak a luxury of musical gifts, with none of the rushed bravura that Horowitz and Toscanini bequeathed this score. The D Minor Scherzo, heroic and expansive at once, can boast of Richter’s prowess and the exemplary sound of the CSO horns and winds, in fine fettle. The exquisite Andante leads us to the Allegro grazioso, whose contrapuntal keyboard episodes are less gracious than demonic, but the tenor of the movement proceeds unruffled until the fiery coda, the staccati and leaps from Richter the huge yawn of well fed lion. For those who may have missed these recordings in their incarnations, they are restored immaculately now.

—Gary Lemco




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