Before he first toured outside the Soviet Bloc in 1960, Western collectors knew Sviatoslav Richter via Melodiya recordings licensed to small domestic labels like Artia, Monitor, and MK. Listening past crunchy vinyl, murky sonics, and pock-marked orchestral playing, one could readily infer the individuality and transcendent technique this pianist brought to the Saint-Saëns 5th, Glazunov, and Rimsky-Korsakoff concertos, as well as Franck's curious potboiler Les Dijins and Beethoven Choral Fantasy sung in Russian.
BMG has remastered these and other early Richter recordings – some which have been out of circulation for years – for ten disc anthology. Some familiar favorites are here: the translucent Schumann Humoresque and Franck Prélude, Chorale and Fugue, a high-voltage Rachmaninoff 1st Concerto, two headstrong and archetonic Schubert sonata performances (D Major, Op. 53 and A Minor, Op. 42), and a searching, large-scaled Beethoven Pathétique, Long time Richterians will rejoice in a miraculous 1952 live Scriabin recital, featuring a molten, over the top 6th Sonata and the deftest "Étude In Ninths" in captivity. The Prokofieff Seventh exudes both power and poetry, but a studio recording of Pictures at an Exhibition, lacks the animal magnetism of Richter's better known Sofia concert version from 1958.
Issued for the first time, I believe, are the passionately played Miaskovsky Third Sonata (no date specified) and three Schumann Novelettes from 1960 (#1, 2 and 8) – more flexible and sonically superior to the briefly available Carnegie Hall versions recorded the following month. Conversely, Richter's 1954 Prague recordings of the Bach D Minor and Prokofieff 1st concertos are sonically and orchestrally preferable to these Russian versions. I vacillate between this set's fiery, pianistically oriented live Bach 3rd English Suite and Beethoven Appasionata and the pianist's softer-grained yet more stylish Philips versions of recent vintage. The live 1966 Chopin F Minor concerto is a revelation, notwithstanding lackadaisical conducting and a cut in the orchestral lead-in. Richter's imaginative, ravishingly nuanced treatment takes its place alongside Hofmann and Cortot in my private Chopin F minor pantheon.
Not all BMG's transfers improve on previous incarnations. The Tchaikovsky G Major Sonata, for example, is compressed in timbre and dynamics, lacking the room ambience and full bass on a bygone Columbia Odyssey LP. My ears also detect telltale signs of stereo spread and artificial reverberation here and there. In contrast, the 1959 Rachmaninoff 2nd concerto's gets a sonic facelift, giving an impression of more animation and vibrancy in the outer movements than the comparatively lethargic and drab performance I remember from LP. Similarly, the Schumann Fantasiestücke (Richter plays six of the eight) and a 1950 Chopin/Schubert session boast tonal solidity absent from previous issues.
In sum, Richter nuts will need no prodding from these quarters, but sound conscious consumers should try to sample before buying. If BMG plans a sequel, I hope they will consider the complete 1960 Carnegie Hall recitals, the splendid studio Prokofieff 9th Sonata, a mind-boggling set of Liszt Transcendental Études from the late 40s that puts all other Richter versions to shame, and (dare we hope) the long-rumoured Gaspard de la Nuit?
(Published in slightly altered form in the September/October Piano and Keyboard 1996)
Copyright © 1997, Jed Distler