Sviatoslav Richter: The Teldec Recordings (Teldec/Warner Classics)
This three-CD set returns to print some fairly fascinating items from the discography of the most venerated pianist of his generation. It’s an import from England that’s distributed by Naxos; at its $24.99 list price, it’s a great bargain, and thus easily worth acquiring even if you already have one of its discs.
Baroque authenticists may sneer at Richter’s playing, on disc one, of J.S. Bach’s Piano Concertos in D major, BWV 1054, and in G minor, BWV 1058, accompanied by the Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto conducted by Yuri Bashmet. I enjoy it, with some qualification. Richter plays BWV 1054 rather sternly, though with quiet elegance in the slow movement; in the outer movements, though, his rhythms are foursquare, lacking the vivacity we now expect in this repertoire, and though he does play a few ornaments, he’s pretty restrained in that department. Things go better in BWV 1058, with more lilting rhythms, though he’s still more staid than most nowadays. The fluid gracefulness of his phrasing is deliciously Mozartean, actually (though some of Bashmet’s emphatic dynamics are more Romantic). Aptly, the other work here is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K.503. Richter’s work here is well within stylistic expectations for Mozart; there were times when some of his Mozart Piano Sonata performances were weightily Beethovenian, but not this time out; nor does Bashmet break the mood.
For sheer WTF-ness, it’s hard to top disc two, where Richter is joined by Elisabeth Leonskaya for one of the more ridiculous yet thoroughly enjoyable recompositions of the Romantic era: Edvard Grieg’s perversely gaudy two-piano versions of Mozart’s Sonatas in C major, K.545, and F major, K.533/494, plus the Fantasia in C minor, K.475. Get this: to Mozart’s originals, Grieg added entire second-piano “accompaniments,” which in fact are extravagant decorations applied on top of Mozart’s structures, filling every bit of space with the most astonishingly unnecessary bits of frippery imaginable -- and, in the process, expanding the harmonies quite anachronistically. Yes, it was an absurdly wrong-minded project that desecrated Mozart’s memory by completely misunderstanding everything that made his music great, yet it is nonetheless bizarrely fascinating and spectacularly entertaining, especially the opening movement of the F major Sonata.
Disc three is more a Borodin String Quartet album than a Richter album; Richter is not present for Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden.” The nearly useless booklet notes say nothing about what connection, if any, Richter had to this recording or why it is included here (nor does anything in this package say anything about the Mozart-Grieg, not even which pianist plays which part. Warner Classics merely took the notes from the original issue of CD one and reprinted them here). Certainly the wonderfully warm and dramatically delineated performance more than justifies itself. Richter joins the quartet for Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44. It is extremely forceful in its contrasts, and the more “masculine” themes are presented with ruthless power, but even as they play with a breathtaking sense of risk, there’s also a magisterial dignity underlying the performance that keeps it from sounding merely flashy. It is by far my favorite recording of this work.
By the '90s, Richter's playing had become inconsistent, his marvelous technique a bit frayed. That's not an issue in these recordings, fortunately. In the history of piano music, and even the history of Richter, this set is not crucial, but it's wonderful, and I can imagine no Richter fan -- and we a legion -- being disappointed by this great bargain of a reissue. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His newly recorded song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.