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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.30 in E major Op.109
Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat major Op.110
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111
Piano Sonata No.4 in E flat major Op.7
Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor Op.31 No. 2 Tempest
Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat major Op.31 No. 3
Piano Sonata No.3 in C major Op.2 No.3
Piano Sonata No.28 in A major Op.101
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op.37
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Moscow Youth Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling (Concerto)
rec. live 22 March 1952 (Op. 37); 10 January 1965 (Op. 31 Nos. 2, 3; Op.90); 10 October 1965 (Opp.101, 110); 22 January 1972 (Op.109); 12 January 1975 (Op.2 No.3; Opp.7, 111) ADD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94399 [3 CDs: 74:19 + 73:32 + 79:57]

Richter fans must so often content themselves with poor quality recordings made live in less than ideal circumstances on even less ideal equipment. The good news is that everything here, although live, is in sound ranging from at least tolerably good to excellent; only the concerto is in mono. Be careful, however; this latest Brilliant Classics issue is simply a re-packaging of the Beethoven stripped out from an earlier 5 CD set also containing the Liszt B minor sonata and four Schubert sonatas. This was the first time these recordings had appeared on CD; for anyone like me wanting just Richter’s Beethoven, already having his Schubert sonatas on various bargain labels such as Regis and Alto, this is the ideal economy package - but Richter completists will want to avoid duplication.
 
The sonatas were recorded over ten years in 1965, 1972 and 1975 with the latter being by the far the best, sonically speaking, although the artistry is uniformly dazzling throughout; this is Richter at his peak. The bonus is a mono recording of the Piano Concerto no. 3, made with a conservatory student orchestra conducted by Kurt Sanderling in 1952, also previously released by Brilliant in their Richter Concerto collection.
 
While we must be grateful to Brilliant for issuing so many previously unavailable, high-quality recordings at such affordable prices, their mixing and matching repackaging strategies can be confusing. No more confusing, however, than Richter’s discography in general, so this remains a tempting compilation, especially when so many of the vintage recordings made in the Soviet Union were often so distorted and edgy; these are eminently listenable, despite being a bit brittle and boomy. There is some coughing, especially irritating in Op.110, a fair amount of background noise and some pre-echo and intermittent pitch fluctuations in the original tapes which have not been corrected. This is especially noticeable in the Andante of Op.109. That said, none of this will deter the Richter aficionado.
 
Op.101 is wonderfully free and Romantic so it’s a pity about the distortion in the crashing chords at the beginning of the second movement. Humour and wit may not be the qualities we first associate with Richter but they are to the fore in the delightfully capricious Allegro which concludes the sonata.
 
Relief from trying sound issues comes in the form of the sound for Op.111. The pianist’s fierce intensity in the Allegro sweeps all before it at a whirlwind tempo. Indeed, the three items from 1975 are those by far the easiest on the ear and best permit the listener to appreciate the clarity and firmness of Richter’s touch in the more percussive sections. Thus the reversion on CD2 from the 1975 recording of Op.7 to Op.31. No.2 is an aural disappointment. The ear soon compensates, such is the majesty of Richter’s playing in the Tempest. One cougher needed ejecting, however.
 
Yet while expecting his trademark dynamism I am always surprised afresh by the sweet fluidity Richter’s playing in lyrical passages such as the “singbar” second movement of Op.90. It’s a mood which carries over into the cantabile first movement of Op.109 before the cascading waves of arpeggios and the thunderous development in which we hear the Olympian style more typically associated with Richter.
 
In the more playful movements of earlier sonatas such as No.3 Richter plays with such brio and communicates a real joy in Beethoven’s invention; his energy is irresistible. While the quality of recorded sound in the items from 1965 is sometimes a cause for mild regret, there is compensation in the way Richter demonstrates his mastery over the gamut of Beethoven’s emotional range. This Sonata No.3, which bridges the world of Haydn and the new sensibility, is among those in the best sound.
 
The live Third Piano Concerto is the earliest of Richter’s accounts on record. It is inevitably a little boxy and the performance is hardly the last word in refinement. The woodwind are sometimes approximate in intonation but Richter’s virtuosity is what catches the ear. Sanderling is a flexible, accommodating conductor, understanding his soloist’s needs. There is not too much lingering rubato in the Largo. The concluding Rondo is exceptionally swift, its Presto conclusion offering ample opportunity for Richter to demonstrate his phenomenal prestidigitation.
 
A biography and extensive notes on each work are provided in the booklet.  

Ralph Moore  

Masterwork Index: Beethoven sonatas


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