Bunte Blätter Comparison – Várjon/Naxos
In Part 1, I indicated that Sviatoslav Richter was the sole famous pianist who had a recording on the market of Schumann's Bunte Blätter. That recording was on Olympia, but I never was able to obtain it. Thanks to this recent BBC Legends disc, I can now offer my opinions on Richter's way with the work. My primary comparative version is from Denes Várjon on Naxos; his performances are splendid and my favorites up to this point with the caveat that the recorded competition is not staggering.
Although Várjon's readings are exemplary, Richter generally comes up with the more compelling interpretations. One major advantage Richter possesses is the greater urgency he injects into the music through his churning lower voices; a fine example is the desperate 2nd Movement where Richter's fire from below makes for a thrilling listening experience. Another advantage is Richter's exceptional command and majesty which is on full display in the ceremonial 3rd Movement.
Incisive articulation and inflections are a Richter trademark, and he cuts to the heart in the 4th Movement; Várjon simply can't compete with such stunning emotional depth. A like disparity takes place in the 9th Movement where Richter gives the second section such full-body swirling and churning that he transports me to a ship on the stormy seas. Although Várjon's 10th Movement is a tower of strength and activity, he must yield to Richter whose lower voices offer a granite-like foundation and a level of tension which can't be penetrated.
The 11th Movement is one of the best in the work, and both Richter and Várjon are exceptional in this eight-minute march. The first section is a trudge through thick snow, while the second section becomes youthful and almost care-free; the contrasts are bewitching.
Richter also scores over Várjon in the 12th Movement which is a delicate and delightful creation. Richter's playful nature is exhilarating, and Várjon seems stodgy in comparison.
There are two exceptions to Richter's superiority. In the 1st Movement, I prefer the slower Várjon pacing which allows for enhanced poignancy. The other exception is a major one – Richter's sound has a slight but persistent 'breaking' quality which makes clarity impossible to achieve. With bass response transparent as mud, the problem becomes exacerbated. Várjon's sound is not state of the art, but it easily surpasses the quality of Richter's recording. So, Richter's are the better performances, but do be cognizant of sound quality issues. Várjon is an excellent selection, and I shouldn't overlook the excellent recording by Egorov on EMI. If you get these three, you need no others.
Don's Conclusions: This is the final Part of my Bunte Blätter review project. If modern sound is important to you, the Várjon on Naxos or the Egorov on EMI are most strongly recommended. However, performance standards alone easily support Richter's version as the one to have. As for the remainder of the disc, I'll be reviewing quite a few piano versions of the Mussorgsky at a future date; Richter's Sofia performance on Philips is generally considered the best on the market.
Getting back to the Bunte Blätter, I must admit that it is not the best that Schumann has to offer. However, the music is lovely and compelling to the point where every piano maven should have at least one version.
Copyright © 2002, Don Satz