Devoted followers of this artist will need little prompting - for them it is enough to say that the performances of the last three Beethoven Sonatas captured on this disc are now available on CD for the first time. Here are fine examples of Richter at his most daring. These concerts present an ideal combination of risk-taking and technical prowess. It is an auspicious start for a new series.
For those who may want more detail to convince them that this disc is worth hearing, let me offer a few examples.
After a quiet opening, the second movement of opus 101 is playful and teasing. Richter adds a subtle syncopation and it's delightful. He does something like this again in later recorded performances, but in Prague, for example, fifteen years later, he's a little more relaxed. In either performance there's more nervous energy than most performers bring to this work. In Ohrid it seems a little less under control and with this pianist that's good.
Richter's fabled "terraced dynamics" are used to good effect here. There is also a strong grasp of the overall structure and organization of the piece.
The first two movements of the E Major Sonata, opus 109, are hurried and pushed, especially the prestissimo. Richter sounds impatient, but there is grandeur in this approach. The music sounds very big, portentous.
In the finale, which is more than twice as long as the first two movements combined, he pulls back, adding little pauses, hesitations, with the effect of heightening the tension, and building excitement. In the faster variations the sense of impatience returns, and the whole sonata builds to a great climax.
In the A flat sonata, Richter takes a relatively slow and deliberate approach. At first I thought he was being very cautious, but this way of presenting the piece involves another kind of risk. Here is no bravura display but rather a careful layout of phrases and paragraphs demanding a certain amount of tolerance from the listener - something Richter must have expected from the Japanese audience. And their patience was rewarded in the thrilling final fugue.
The last Beethoven Sonata, opus 111, begins with tremendous energy and drive and Richter plays it to the hilt. All caution is now thrown to the winds and the result is brilliant and very exciting. The last movement, like that of the E Major, is the bulk of the piece, and it is assembled with meticulous care.
The sound quality on this release is good for its age but not as clear as on the Philips, Praga, and Live Classics recordings made fifteen or twenty years later. There's some distortion in the 4th movement of opus 101 - briefly, in a loud passage near the end, the sound breaks up. The Ohrid and Tokyo concerts sound about the same, a little dull compared to modern recordings, but acceptable.
Abram Chasins calls Sviatoslav Richter "essentially a miniaturist," and in these recitals it is easy to see why. Richter makes the most of the twists and turns in the score - he always seems to live for the moment. That is why it is easy to forgive the missed notes - you can generally see (or hear) what he was aiming for. At the same time the late Beethoven Sonatas demand from the performer an exceptional understanding and mastery of large structures and internal connections. Without this they do not reveal their depths and are reduced to a series of episodes. Richter's Beethoven is completely successful both in its attention to detail and its ability to put across these difficult pieces as coherent wholes. These performances are prime examples of this artist at his best and this is truly an edifying experience.
Copyright © 1999, Paul Geffen