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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

  • Piano Concerto #2
  • Piano Sonata #1
Sviatoslav Richter, piano
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
RCA Red Seal "Classic Library" 60860
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You have probably experienced this. You are driving along and turn on the radio in the midst of a piece of music that blows you away. Sometimes you will keep the engine running when you stop just so you can find out who is performing the music. This recording is a case in point. I was so overwhelmed by it I just HAD to make sure I added it to my collection. It was such an exciting, dynamic performance. As it turned out, I already did have it and it is certainly one of the best recordings I have ever heard.

This is now generally regarded as among the finest performances of all time. The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs calls it 'incandescent'. Incandescence by the way means a high degree of emotion, intensity and brilliance. I can't think of a better word to describe this performance and the recording that makes it so. In his tome The Third Ear the writer opines, "Recordings of 2 have long been dominated by Richter's made during the Russian pianist's first American tour in 1960." Whilst researching for this review, however, I came across a review by Martin Bookspan when the LP was first released.

The way the public and some critics have been carrying on about Richter, all other pianists – one gets the idea – should close up shop. Well, Richter is a fine artist, but he is not that divine. In this recording of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto he reveals strengths and weaknesses in a rather unconventional interpretation. His strength is the peculiar mixture of intellect and emotion with which he approaches the music. Obviously he is a sincere and dedicated musician with original ideas. His weaknesses are a technique that has its sloppy moments (sections in the fourth movement, for instance, are inaccurate), and some notions about tempo that make the music crawl. This is a very interesting performance but it is easily outmatched by Gilels, Rubinstein, and Serkin. The recorded sound leaves something to be desired.

I don't have any other initial reviews nor do I have Bookspan's recommendations at hand for comparison. The last comment, however, is important. This recording was released on RCA's "Papillon" Series, coupled with the less apt Beethoven Piano Sonata #23 "Appassionata". Comparing the sound on that release with this one is not possible, only contrast is. The sound on that release is thin, the orchestra, in particular, sounds so distant as to make me believe it was recorded in a different room. Now the sound is rich, full and deep. The opening horn playing has a burnish to it. The piano sounds like the finest Steinway (or was it?) around. After listening to the earlier release from 1987 this one makes me realize just how really good the performance really was.

Having spent so much time on the concerto to slight the sonata may seem niggardly but I must confess that I really don't appreciate the piece enough to discuss this recording. I will eventually take the time to study it more but for now can only say that it sounds damn good to me.

I don't recall what I paid for the earlier CD but I noticed that the original LP retailed for $5.98. That was for just the concerto. To get the Beethoven as well would have been another $5.98… that is actually less than I paid for this CD. Given inflation this disc is considerably cheaper than what I would have paid when it came out. This is that kind of 'who-gives-a-damn' information that you occasionally encounter like so much flotsam and jetsam.

RCA and other of the "majors" are plumbing their archives and releasing a lot of gold. Not only are the performances and recordings from legendary performers and conductors, but care has been taken to produce a sound far, far better than ever before. All of this at a mid-price. I have also reviewed a Munch/Debussy release with "La Mer" and other works and found it vastly superior to the previous incarnations. Among several other interesting-looking items on the forthcoming list I particularly look forward to Monteux's "Rite" and "Pétrouchka".

Copyright © 2004, Robert Stumpf II