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Hyperion Records

APR5669 - Sviatoslav Richter – Schubert Sonatas

Recording details: Various dates
Moscow, Russia
Release date: April 2009
Total duration: 77 minutes 32 seconds

Sviatoslav Richter – Schubert Sonatas
Moderato  [12'37]  recorded March 1957
Andante poco mosso  [9'49]  recorded March 1957
Scherzo: Allegro vivace  [7'41]  recorded March 1957
Rondo: Allegro vivace  [4'36]  recorded March 1957
Allegro vivace  [7'35]  recorded August 1956
Con moto  [15'11]  recorded August 1956
Scherzo: Allegro vivace  [8'45]  recorded August 1956
Rondo: Allegro moderato  [7'23]  recorded August 1956
No 2 in E flat major: Allegro  [3'55]  recorded 1950

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
What new can be written about the life and achievements of Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter (20 March 1915–1 August 1997) within the confines of a booklet such as this? Very little, it would appear. There is after all, an abundance of Richter profiles, significantly fortified by Bruno Monsaingeon’s Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conver­sa­tions, as well as documentary and archive films. Furthermore, Richter is probably the most recorded of all pianists; in addition to an extensive ‘official’ discography, achieved despite the pianist’s assertion that he intensely disliked the recording process, there are innumerable ‘pirate’ recordings. In spite of this impressive testament, however, Richter remains an enigma induced largely by his abhorrence of self-promotion and a near patho­logical desire for privacy. Unquestionably, he was a deeply complex person, someone who inhabited his own world while leading a nomadic, restless and ceaselessly questing existence. He could be simultaneously innocent and oblique, he was notoriously unpredictable and obstinate, and he was outspokenly blunt about his own and others’ achievements. Certainly, his sphinx-like demeanour during performance gave little away save an aura of displeasure at having to play before an assembled audience.

The biographical contours of Richter’s life and career can be briefly drawn. Soon after he was born at Zhitomir in Ukraine to highly musical parents – his father, of Polish/German descent, was a pianist, organist and composer who could claim friendships with Grieg and Schreker – the family moved to the German quarter in Odessa where Richter senior took a teaching post at the city’s conservatoire. For some unfathomable reason he showed little interest in his son’s playing. Left to his own devices, the young Richter consequently developed a technique by voraciously sight-reading operatic scores. (Late in life, he confessed to never having practised scales or exercises.) Although he became an accom­panist at the Odessa Sailors’ Club aged 14 and was ballet répétiteur at the Opera House four years later, at no time during this period did Richter consider a career as a professional pianist. Then, seemingly out of the blue in March 1934 with no formal training and a minimal knowledge of the piano repertory, he gave an all-Chopin recital at the Odessa Engineers’ Club. Having received only a luke­warm reception and with growing anti-German sentiments in Odessa, Richter left for Moscow in general and Heinrich Neuhaus in particular.

Richter had previously heard Neuhaus perform in Odessa and been captivated by ‘the flights of inspiration’ in his playing. For his part, when Neuhaus first heard the totally untutored Richter in 1937 he was deeply impressed and immediately admitted him to his class at the Moscow Conservatoire. That the two appeared to be kindred souls is hardly surprising: Neuhaus too was Ukrainian, born of a musical German father. Neuhaus later insis­ted that it was he who learnt from Richter and described his approach towards his unique charge as that of ‘friendly (but by no means passive) neutrality’. When Richter’s father was shot by the Soviets in 1941, his mother fled to Germany and Neuhaus’s role as Richter’s surrogate father was consolidated. Richter’s first Moscow recital in July 1942 signalled the start of his concert career. Audiences were taken aback by the pianist’s leonine tempera­ment, all-encompassing technique and thrilling spontaneity. A year after graduating from the Conservatoire in 1944, he entered (very reluc­tantly and only at Neuhaus’s dogged insis­tence) the All-Union Competition of Performers and shared the first piano prize with the brilliant Viktor Merzhanov (represented in this series on APR 5671). The rest is common knowledge; at the time of his death in Moscow, Sviatoslav Richter was widely recognized as one of the pre-eminent pianist-musicians of the twentieth century.

What, perhaps, should be addressed here are the provenance and quality of these two Schubert sonata recordings. They appear to have long been taken for granted, yet are surely landmark recordings from several standpoints. In the West, Schubert’s sonatas received belated recognition in the recording studio during the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to the likes of Myra Hess and Artur Schnabel, although it was not until the advent of the LP in the late 1940s and early 1950s that the complete canon gradually became available, initially due to the endeavours of Friedrich Wührer and Erno” Balogh. In the USSR, recognition came even later and almost entirely as a result of the efforts of Richter and, to a lesser extent, Vladimir Sofronitsky whose performances of two sonatas appeared posthumously on LP. (Incidentally, when Richter began to include Schubert sonatas in his recitals on a regular basis, his actions were frowned upon by many pedagogues who preferred their pupils to play ‘more worthwhile’ Schumann instead.) These recordings are not only the first fruits of Richter’s pioneering work but also the first Schubert sonatas to be commercially recorded in the USSR. (Schubert was to remain an obsession for the rest of Richter’s life, albeit one which became increasingly controversial as he adopted a more austere approach and increasingly ‘expansive’ tempi.) Significantly, by the time he made these recordings (1956/7) two important developments had occurred. First, Melodiya, the state recording company, had improved its recording techniques to such an extent that the more subtle nuances of Richter’s playing were at last captured. Second, this was a time when the ‘firebrand’ Richter (evident in his 1950 recording of the Impromptu in E flat appended to this programme as an ‘encore’) began to emerge as a philosopher-poet, a precious time in his career when technical command, intellectual powers and interpretative originality were in perfect accord. Thus, what we have here is the very essence of Richter in his prime: solemnity tempered by intensity and drive, an unforced yet breath-taking virtuosity placed entirely at the service of the music, an architectural solidity which never inhibits the music’s inherent lyricism. In short, Neuhaus was right: ‘Only a pianist whose genius is a match for the composer’s, a pianist who is the composer’s brother, comrade and friend, can play like that.’

Bryan Crimp © 2009

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