In spite of his gigantic recorded legacy Sviatoslav Richter left us relatively little Rachmaninoff. Of the famous concertos he only recorded the First and Second, and not even that many times. Hearing these Russian live documents from the 1950's again, reissued by the Czech label Praga Digitals (the first in yet another "Richter Edition"), can but increase our regrets he didn't return to them more often.
The Praga disc offers Richter's only recorded performance of the First Piano Concerto from Moscow 1955 with the USSR Radio and TV State Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Second from Leningrad 1959 with the Leningrad Philharmonic, both conducted by Kurt Sanderling. Both have been previously released more than once, yet the main forte of this reissue are the enhanced sonics. Praga mastered the old tapes in DSD format for SACD and while even then earth-shaking miracles from these crippled Soviet-era sources cannot be expected, this facelift enhances our listening pleasure to a fair extent. The dynamics have been opened up and most importantly Richter's piano is projected much clearer and incisive. The orchestra seems to have been stripped of layers of cotton wool – which is, especially in the case of the First Concerto, something of a double-edged sword. The flawed Russian recording practices of the day are even more painfully apparent and both piano and orchestra tutti suffer from distortion. Moreover, the USSR Radio and TV State Symphony Orchestra in the First Concerto sounds particularly rough and ready with brutal brass and wobbling horns.
That being said, these remain performances in a class of their own. The rhythmic drive, the clarity and power of articulation, the sense of fantasy of Richter's pianism continue to astound and secure these versions a place among the best. Although many collectors will prefer Richter's studio recording of the Rachmaninoff Second from a year later with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislaw Wislocki (on DG), which is very similar in overall approach but sounds better, it nonetheless is felt that the cooperation in the earlier Russian version between Richter and Sanderling was more complete. Especially when considering the last movement, where the Polish orchestra doesn't quite follow Richter's exuberance, the Leningrad performance leaves the impression of total agreement.
As a bonus we are offered four Rachmaninoff preludes recorded in New York during Richter's debut American tour in late 1960. Nothing new here either, the preludes were taken from the December 26 Carnegie Hall recital (the complete concert was released by RCA as "Richter Rediscovered"), yet Richter turns each one of them in a miniature gem, sparkling now more than ever thanks to the enhanced sonics.
Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman