Sviatoslav Richter in Prague

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
WORKS: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Opp. 2/3, 10/3, 26, 31/2, 31/3, 57, 90, 101, 106, 110; Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 3; Diabelli Variations; Rondos, Op. 51; Bagatelles, Op. 126/1, 46; Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No r2; Variations on a Hungarian
PERFORMER: Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CMX 354001/15 ADD (1950-88)


These two sets complement one another nicely. Melodiya presents mostly studio recordings made before Richter’s first appearance in the West in 1960; the Praga set consists of live performances from Prague and its environs, more than half of which date from 1965-88. Most of the Melodiya recordings have been staples of the Richter discography for decades, many of them rightly being seen as among his best work.

By contrast, none of these Praga performances was in general circulation before 1993, and only two Chopin nocturnes and the Brahms Variations, Op. 21/2, are new works in the Richter discography; thus this set is for the enthusiast who enjoys sifting through ‘new’ Richter recordings for undiscovered gems and interpretative roads not previously taken.

These two sets barely overlap in repertoire, with only three significant duplications. For some musicians and listeners, Richter is but one famous pianist among many. For others, myself included, he is an inspiration, one of a very few performers who achieve the most fundamental expressive ideals towards which music strives.

The style of so seminal a figure defies easy description, but these two collections teem with manifestations of its principal features. To begin with, the visceral impact Richter can make is uniquely exciting -1 still can’t listen to Chopin’s fitude, Op. 10/4 (Praga), without exploding in laughter at its audacious energy.

One thing that makes his playing so elemental is Richter’s control of rhythm — once set in motion, its momentum can be hypnotic, whether in the monumental public oratory of Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 2/3 (Praga) or the infinite inner world he finds in Mozart’s Sonata-plus-Rondo in F, K533/494 (Praga).

The landscape that Richter’s playing inhabits is defined by, on the one hand, actual or implied dynamic extremes (Praga’s Schubert Sonata in B flat is but one of many examples) and, on the other, a controlled subtlety of inflection that strikes some as too objective and uninvolved. But it is precisely this willingness to subordinate details to large-scale goals that causes the Tchaikovsky Sonata (Melodiya) to take flight so convincingly that the ‘slighted’ details themselves seem memorably conveyed.

One end of his spectrum of dynamic extremes is silence, from which Richter is adept at wringing maximum effect. His way of causing wisps of phrases to yearn for the silence into which they trail off just before the grand conclusion of Schumann’s Humoreske (Melodiya) sears the memory.

The patience required for such an effect is compounded of faith, idealism and imagination, all of which refuse to be shackled by apparent technical difficulties (Schumann’s ‘Traumes Wirren’, Melodiya). The concentration demanded by such playing permeates the grandly ecstatic, cumulatively overwhelming accounts of Beethoven’s Op. 106 and Brahms’s Op. 1 sonatas on Praga — both performances transform the impression made by Richter’s fitfully energised previous recordings of these pieces.

Richter is infallible neither as an interpreter nor as a pianist (plenty of smudges in the Praga set attest to the latter), but his many admirers will wade happily through both sets — undeterred by the variable sound quality, oddities of presentation, and mostly undistinguished orchestral playing — in quest of beauty and excitement.


Those who prefer to start with appetisers might try the memorable Schumann disc on Melodiya and the spellbinding Praga account of Ravel’s Miroirs. David Breckbill