LP Number: Philips 2 LPs 6702 003
It's possible to go through life and not know nor ever hear the eight other concertos that Vivaldi's Four Seasons are only a part of. His Op. 8, Il Cimento dell'Armonia e dell'Inventione (roughly, "daring experiments in harmony and invention"), is a novel collection of twelve concertos, mostly for violin, two for oboe -- none of them at all shabby. Likewise, it is possible to go through life and never hear, or even know about, the eight other pieces that formed that remarkable recital of piano genius -- with coughing obbligato--that took place on a winter's day in 1958 in Sofia, Bulgaria. I am speaking of the one -- the only -- performance of Mousorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in the original version for piano: by Sviatoslav Richter. But what of the rest of the program?
I began this commentary as a review of five recordings of this piece (one of them transcribed for organ), referencing the very serviceable Richter recording on Columbia. I soon began to bore myself with the refrain that such and such was all very well as far as it went, but lacked the fire and boldness of the Richter, etc., etc. So I put aside Alexis Weissenberg, Benno Moiseivitsch, Ronald Smith, Leonard Pennario, Oskar Gottlieb Blarr and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Just then I remembered I had a copy of Richter's entire concert.
I came across this two-record set years ago in a sealed copy, so I was at first unable to confirm what I eagerly hoped. Might this be the complete recital from which was drawn what is generally conceded to be the performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition against which all others are measured? For many years I had known of this performance only from the Columbia ML 5600 mono, ca. 1960. Since the Columbia didn't identify the other pieces on the program, I just had to spring for it. Worst case scenario -- I would have yet another Richter record to add to my collection. I could live with that.
Sure enough, this was the original concert, even if not the first edition of it. And what a concert! Philips’ title for this release is Sternstunden des Klavierspiels -- courageously translated Superstar Pianists. Every work is technically challenging in one dimension or another, yet all are musically substantive--not a single piece of filler. [Now if I had had a computer back then, all I need have done was a Google search on "the sofia recital" and up would have come all the details.]
As I mentioned, the concert was in the dead of winter, as the random coughing in the Moussorgsky (thankfully, less in evidence for the rest of the concert) confirms. I once speculated that the weather and the apparent health of the audience might explain Richter's overall tendency to press on, providing an edge that we don't generally hear to relatively demure pieces by Chopin and Schubert. Who knows? But I doubt it. Richter rather enjoyed being recorded live, as a number of his DGG LPs demonstrate. And a live concert recording gives us something rare these days: a living, breathing, spontaneous work of art. It may not have the polish of a studio recording, but it is more likely to connect with our inner selves.
One could argue that Richter lacks the necessary finesse in the two Schubert Impromptus. The technique is there, but absent is the nth degree of weightlessness required to make the pieces work as they might. Richter plays them with more fire than I ever would have imagined the work implies. Yet it is not from any lack of "proper" temperament that Richter offers this interpretation. He is perfectly able to play sweetly, poetically and with any degree of lightness of touch required--as his recording of Schubert's B-Flat Major Sonata demonstrates to a fault. Rather, he sees the E-Flat Impromptu as the middle movement of the three Schubert pieces on the program, not as an isolated piece to show off his dexterity. As such, it projects authority more than lyricism.
Richter is rather fond of contrasts. Chopin's E-major Etude is played with more contrast between its three sections than I would have thought possible, let alone advisable. There is an absence of sentimentality, challenging the listener's preconceptions. You might have to play it a few times to see what Richter is about here. Richter, it should be remembered, studied to be a conductor, not a pianist. And, as my own music teachers were fond of saying, pianists and vocalists are most often guilty of failing to think beyond the moment. Instead of playing the etude's middle section as a contrasting section of equal importance -- or as just another opportunity to show off one's competence in the exercise, as the title suggests -- Richter plays it as an intense flash of energy, pulling us away momentarily and thrusting us back again. It quite takes the breath. Even if you come away feeling that this is not how the piece should go, Richter offers an insight you may not have thought of -- and that is what live music is all about. I find it brilliant.
The Liszt titles are natural showpieces, but they contain stretches of great tenderness, requiring the lightest touch and a willingness to divorce one's ego from the presentation of technique. Even though Liszt himself may have indulged in exploiting his virtuosity on the stage (Who else would have thought of turning the piano at right angles to the audience?), a case can be made for a "less is more" approach. My personal favorite Liszt interpreters on record, György Cziffra, Aldo Ciccolini and Edith Farnadi, are particularly successful in this.
The two Valses oubliées serve this purpose well, especially No. 2, which serves as a veritable pool of understatement in a field of dazzling exhibitionism comprising the Transcendental Etudes and the Pictures. The Transcendental Etude No. 11, romantically titled "Harmonies du soir," is one of those stunning demonstrations of technique in the service of music in which Liszt excelled. Ach, those dead white Europeans! How come they get nights like that, and all we get is ER?
No self-respecting record collector should be without Sviatoslav Richter's inimitable performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. It is by turns driven, contemplative, anxious; and at all times commanding--amazingly so, despite the occasional finger slips. Richter does not wander aimlessly through the gallery, passively waiting whatever next presents itself. Far from it. He presses on from painting to painting, eagerly embracing each vision and his personal engagement with it. No other performance captures such a personal odyssey as is revealed to us in this recording. Other pianists seem positively bored by comparison.
With the recurring "Promenade" that represents the viewer’s state of mind as he moves from one picture to the next, Richter clearly understands its function as unifier and bridge. The Promenade's final appearance, integrated with the "Great Gate" itself, is one of piano literature's most astonishing metamorphoses, taking on the character of bells pealing, rivaling the real thing in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.
There are many remarkable things about Richter's Pictures -- his use of the pedal, especially the sostenuto pedal, not only to clarify textures, but also for a legato second to none; his impressive technique; his musicality. But perhaps the most remarkable is something that defies the laws of physics: his ability to create a sense of crescendo on a chord after it has been played. Decades ago I came across the score to a piano piece by Schumann (I don't recall which one) where the composer had written a crescendo on a single note, meaning that the note is to sound louder after it is struck. Clearly, while this is possible on a bowed or wind instrument, it isn't on the piano. But Schumann wanted the idea placed in the performer's mind for some subliminal effect. There are moments in Richter's performance that seem to achieve the very illusion. Listen to the "Great Gate at Kiev" with this in mind, and hear what you hear.
A few words about the recording, which is itself an essay on temporal anomalies. Given the state of ad hoc studios of the day, the piano sound is quite good. The miking seems a trifle distant, but it's not anything like a balcony perspective. Nor should we think that just because it was made on the other side of the "iron curtain" it necessarily must be dismally compromised. But here's the weird thing: Unless Philips is misrepresenting itself, that this recording is not all from the same concert (Richter had been on tour with this program), it is most peculiar that the Moussorgsky be recorded in mono and all the rest in stereo. But so the record labels suggest!
To my ear, the sound of the audience applause has an electronic stereo feel on the sides labeled "stereo"; yet the piano does not sound particularly disintegrated, as it usually does on ES recordings. In fact, the bass is quite satisfactory and the treble no more rolled off than usual for Philips. The background whoosh sounds much the same on all four sides, though amplitudes and tonal balances differ -- which confirms what we already believe about the venue and its program. The labels on the Moussorgsky sides indicate neither stereo nor mono, All the same, the music is clearly in mono.
Thus we are presented with three virtual pianos. Taken together with their respective environments: [a] the Columbia Pictures, which would have been made before 1960 and therefore in dependable mono, and [b] the Philips Pictures, obviously mono, but with very different EQ. The Philips has a rolled-off treble and a more voluptuous mid-bass. The Columbia piano is more brilliant, with the background noises more prominent, even over and above the occasional cough. And [c] the remaining Philips LP. I admit I am unable to determine if it is electronic stereo, despite the audience sound. Either way, the piano sound for Moussorgsky is quite different from that of the Liszt, Schubert and Chopin.
Why Philips splits the aural experience in this way is anyone's guess. Mine is that the Philips Pictures retains the original mono, but is cut with a stereo cutter. As for the differences between the two LPs in this same set, I suspect good electronic stereo. It's hard for me to imagine that in a 1958 concert recording, some technical glitch rendered half the concert in mono and the other half in stereo [though weirder things happened to me when I tried my hand at live recording, which was the main reason I gave it up]. The Philips 24-bit CD 289 464 734-2 (which, by the way, includes the Rachmaninov G-sharp minor Prelude, Op. 32, No. 13) makes quite clear that there is only one piano, recorded in mono throughout. So there it is.