Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Opus 15
CD Number: JM-XR24018
When Sviatoslav Richter is on top form, there is no one to touch him. But there are other times when that inspiration is missing, and you wonder what all the fuss is about. On this disc we have examples of both.
Richter can't work up much excitement for Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. He delivers a competent and accurate performance, but with no real fireworks or special insights. But we also have 11 minutes of absolute magic as Richter inhabits Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 22 as few others ever have or will. Buy this disc for the Sonata and have a genius reveal Beethoven's secrets in your living room. So the filler on this record is the Concerto.
So let's deal with the filler first! Recorded on November 2nd and 3rd 1960, Richter is accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Charles Munch. The piano is laid back well into the mix, and this helps to provide a chamber music feel to the recording. Much as I admire Munch's lively approach, his direction lacks subtlety, especially when compared to the finesse Richter brings to his playing. Richter controls the weight of each note within a phrase, while the strings respond in the same rhythm but without the dynamic shading. The orchestra's strong suit is in the brass and woodwinds, which have both clarity and color in abundance, while the lower strings are a bit bloated and over-weighted. Richter's playing is uncharacteristically gentle, and the piano tone carries little weight in the lower registers. Tempo is moderate throughout, while the piano and orchestra are overheard in intimate conversation. Richter plays a long Beethoven cadenza, which sounds more mechanical and less musically interesting than other cadenzas I have heard in this concerto. In the second movement Largo, Richter's playing is lively despite the steady pace. He brings simplicity and subtlety to the piano part, and the orchestral support is strong. The best playing from both is in the Rondo finale, where the spiky rhythms emerge clearly. There is never a sense of strain but neither is there much electricity.
Sonata No.22 in F, Opus 54 is not one of the famous sonatas that have earned themselves nicknames. Nor is it a major work in terms of length, complexity or the virtuosity required to perform it. You won't be whistling the tunes on your way to work. But it has always been a favorite of mine, and I have especially enjoyed Brendel's various performances of this work, to which he brings a marvelous pulse and jazzy rhythms. Richter trumps those attributes here, adding menace and lyricism in turn and even, at times, together. The performance is direct with not an ounce of fat on it. The first movement pace is measured, the control phenomenal. Virtuosity may not be required but it is here in abundance, in the absolute control of sonority, pace and articulation. You sense there is a racehorse being held to a canter, and so it is. In the second movement all hell breaks loose; a powerful momentum propels the music to new heights and draws the listener to the edge of his seat. I have waited many years to hear a performance such as this, which elevates this often overlooked work to the front ranks. Music doesn't get much better than this.
When you hear this sonata once, you will want to play it again straight away. You may feel, as I do, that Richter was just going through the motions in the concerto, frustrated perhaps at the unexceptional performance of the orchestra, out of sorts with Munch's approach, or simply no great fan of this early work.
This is another historic reissue from JVC on their XRCD label, promising Superior Audiophile Quality. I have raved over the sound quality of the JVC's recent reissues of Rubinstein's Chopin of roughly the same vintage. Has JVC pulled another rabbit out of the hat here? Well, yes and no, or rather no and yes. The concerto suffers from two sonic problems. First, on a highly resolving system, you can clearly hear the rumble of passing traffic and some movement of chairs or music stands in Boston's Symphony Hall. Second, and rather more disconcertingly, there is a low level hum present for much of the first movement. I spoke to Kevin Berg of JVC to find out if by chance I had a faulty pressing, an unlikely event given the extreme care and attention the XRCD discs enjoy in manufacture. No, the hum is present on the 3 track master tapes, and could not be removed without also removing some of the musical information. The engineers decided, quite rightly, not to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Fortunately the sound on the Sonata, recorded in Webster Hall in New York City, November 29th and 30th 1960, is in a completely different class. A very slight hiss betrays the age of the recording, but the sound is immediate, dynamic and realistic. I felt that Richter was right there in the room with me, and that's the acid test. Richter is let down by one piano key which displays some unwanted harmonics in the first movement, but this minor blemish is missing in the Allegretto finale.
This is not an inexpensive disc. Unless your Japanese is very much better than mine, you'll make no sense of the liner notes. Is it worth it? If you were looking for a fine performance of the First Piano Concerto, give this one a miss. There are plenty better, including Barenboim's performance with Otto Klemperer, part of a complete set (Angel 63360). But if you don't mind shelling out good money for a surpassingly great performance of a single two movement piano sonata, you are a man (or woman) after my own heart.
Piano Concerto No.1
Piano Sonata No.22