Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Opp. 2/3; 10/3, 26; 31/2; 31/3; 57 (Appassionata), 90, 101, 106 (Hammerklavier) & 110; Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Praga
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Opp. 2/3; 10/3, 26; 31/2; 31/3; 57 (Appassionata), 90, 101, 106 (Hammerklavier) & 110; Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
PERFORMER: Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CMX 354022/25 ADD 1959-86
When Richter died in Moscow last August, the world was deprived of an icon. Elusive, marmoreal, communing more with the composer than the audience, he could sustain the keenest concentration over the most extended time-span. At his best, he was a master of the natural agogic accent, impeccable in phrasing, peerless in his meticulous attention to dynamics, capable of the most delicately nuanced playing. Even when his interpretations appeared wayward or perverse, they were the expression of a towering musical intelligence. Richter could never do anything by mistake.

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Three of these discs are of Czech Radio recordings of public recitals given between 1959 and 1986. They’re subject to the usual pitfalls of live performance: the occasional missed or smudged note, a certain amount of coughing (though not enough to be more than a minor irritant) and, in the Op. 26 Sonata, hollow sound and an occasional mysterious tapping noise. All this could have been avoided in a studio recording. But that would have deprived us of the set’s strongest asset – Richter’s masterly spontaneity.

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There are several things I find unconvincing – the different tempi of the variations in Op. 26, the slow speed of Op. 110’s second movement, the scherzo of Op. 31/3-which Richter, like Schnabel (EMI), takes as an Allegro, not an Allegretto (though even Schnabel doesn’t dispatch it at such a giddy speed). But they are more than outweighed by many virtues-the dynamic shading in the scherzo of Op. 2/3, the profundity of Op. 10/3’s Largo, the shimmering pedal effects in the recitatives of Op. 31/2’s opening Allegro, and practically the whole of the Diabelli Variations. One warning: the finale of Op. 26 starts 3:53 minutes into track 12, and not at the beginning. Wadham Sutton