Beethoven: Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier); Piano Sonata in C, Op. 2/3; Bagatelles, Op. 126

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier); Piano Sonata in C, Op. 2/3; Bagatelles, Op. 126
PERFORMER: Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4052-2 ADD
Charisma, something which can’t be acquired through study, is difficult enough to define in the concert hall, when one can see as well as hear the performer, but how to explain it within seconds of the opening of a strictly audio recording? Richter had more charisma in his little finger than most performers acquire in a lifetime. From the moment he touches the keyboard he has you listening intently to every note he plays. Opinions differ about his Beethoven-playing, but this strikes me as a towering recital from start to finish. In its emotional – more than that, in its spiritual – range, as also in the quality of its pianism, it pretty well boxes the compass (and pianists should listen to the extraordinary subtlety of the pedalling, which is an education in itself).

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Come to that, there has never been a more sophisticated or creative master of the pedals than Wilhelm Kempff, as he demonstrates throughout this imaginative recital of neglected or atypical works by great composers. Kempff, as revealed here, could be among the most Romantic of Classicists and the most ‘Classical’ of Romantics, but whatever he played, in whatever style, he brought to it an illuminating grasp of structure, phrasing and articulation – and a tonal palette that was the despair of lesser pianists. His account here of Beethoven’s Op. 54 (complete with lavishly ‘impressionistic’ pedalling) is a revelation. Ditto the almost criminally neglected Schubert sonata.

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And Annie Fischer? Too many music lovers have never even heard of her – and her omission from the Philips ‘Great Pianists’ series was positively scandalous. She wasn’t the world’s most note-perfect pianist (but then neither were Schnabel, Cortot, Rubinstein, Serkin or her namesake Edwin Fischer), nor was she technically quite as comprehensive as Richter, but she was as profound, exciting and wide-ranging an interpreter as any, and she was no mean virtuoso either (witness her stunning Liszt-playing here). Like many of her colleagues, I would unhesitatingly rank her with the highest. In its truly symphonic breadth, its gigantic power and its almost painful intimacy, her playing of the Brahms F minor Sonata here is unsurpassed in my experience.