Sviatoslav Richter: Pianist of the Century

Complete solo and concerto recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 477 8122)

9 July 2009 4 stars

RichterOne of the few advantages of pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter and, more recently, Martha Argerich having been difficult to lure into recording studio is that Deutsche Grammophon are able to produce beautifully packaged complete retrospectives that give a wonderful glimpse of their work for the label without breaking the bank.

In the same way as volume one of the Martha Argerich Collection – containing her solo recordings for the yellow label; the second volume of concertos is released this summer – this 9-CD set, Sviatoslav Richter Pianist of the Century, has each disc reflecting exactly how the original LPs were released. And although the direct transfer of the programmes onto individual CDs makes for inevitably stingy playing times, the meticulous reproduction of the LPs' original artwork, not to mention the relatively low cost of the set, more than makes up for this.

A new booklet note by Jeremy Siepman places the recordings themselves in a wider artistic and historical context and goes some way to recreate the importance associated with their original releases, starting over half a century ago in 1957 with a Schumann recital based around the Waldszenen Op.82 and the Fantasiestücke Op.12 As on a recently released BBC Legends recital, numbers four and six – 'Grillen' and 'Fabel' – are missing from the latter. This, is one example of how, Siepman explains, 'Like Frank Sinatra, Richter did things his way'. Infuriating though it is for the completist in every music-lover, we have to make do with the fact that Richter never even performed let alone recorded many works that make up the foundation of the pianist's repertoire. We have to make do with what we have here, as well as all the other recordings – live or studio – that are dotted around other labels.

So, after the first Schumann disc we have his famous concerto coupling of Mozart's D minor concerto K.466 and Prokoviev's fifth. Whereas Richter's Schumann and Prokoviev are uniquely authoritative, mixing virtuosity with clarity and poetry, his Mozart is the first of several performances in the set that show the pianist in sternly classical mode. Indeed, even though he chooses Beethoven's own cadenzas for this famously Beethovenian concerto, the playing is more remarkable for its disciplined poise; infuriating or refreshing depending on one's point of view, this is nevertheless Mozart playing that has a unique authority, even if it is not especially likeable. For me the frustration was more clear-cut with the disc of Beethoven concertante works, a coupling of the Piano Concerto No.3 and the B flat Rondo WoO 6, with the Vienna Symphony under Kurt Sanderling. Why, for all the immense skill on show, does Richter refuse to obey the presto marking at the climax of the first movement's cadenza, leaving us with something that sounds like a practice session at half speed? There's impressive austerity in the first movement, however, while the Largo achieves a beautiful stillness and the Rondo is powerful. Nevertheless, the whole thing seems rather too unsmiling.

Two discs of Romantic Russian concertos bring varied results. The famous clash of egos that Siepman tells us more or less scuppered the recording of Tchaikovsky's B flat minor concerto is in evidence; an uneasy tension between Richter and a Herbert von Karajan at the height of his early career in 1962 results in a performance that, despite some magic from the pianist, never really gels into anything musically or dramatically convincing over the longer span. There's no such tension between Richter and Stanisław Wisłocki in the recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2, despite some unusually extreme tempi chosen by the pianist – the opening chords in particularly become immense, with the bass notes pounded out with astonishing power. This is a great recording, though, that is utterly persuasive and, in terms of sheer virtuosity, immensely impressive. The coupling of six of the Preludes – including a thundering performance of Op.23 No.2 – also capture the pianist at his very best.

We are left then with three varied recital discs, two taken from Richter's November 1962 Italian concert tour where the performances are subject to some pretty poor recordings, not helped by a fair amount of audience noise. There are some pretty astonishing performances here, though, chief among which must be that of Scriabin's fifth sonata, Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie and, for their concentration alone, the set of Bach preludes and fugues that start the final disc. The undoubted highlight of the other mixed recital – recorded at two sessions in London in 1961 – is a justly famous, titanic account of Prokoviev's Sonata No.8.

Like the Martha Argerich collection, this Richter box is probably the last word on the great pianist's recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and a model of an evocative, well-documented reissue. Unlike Argerich, the recordings themselves are less consistent, whether down to the pianist himself or not inconsiderable practical difficulties thrown up by the politics of the time. Most of Richter's greatest performances on disc - on which any claims to 'Pianist of the Century' would be more firmly built - are those captured live, but to hear him in the studio is to hear him in a different light, even if the results are not as uniformly persuasive.

By Hugo Shirley