Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 33 (1876) [38:32]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasy for Piano in C major, D. 760 Wanderer (1822) [20:45]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Bavarian State Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber
rec. 1963/76, Salle Wagram, Paris; Bürgerbräukeller, Munich
WARNER CLASSICS 2435 668952 [59:30]

These recordings have been reissued several times as a coupling since they first appeared as separate issues on the EMI label. Now Warner has released them again at super budget price. There is nothing “budget” about them, though, as performances. Any fan of Sviatoslav Richter will likely already have collected them, especially the Schubert. As sound they both come up well in this latest incarnation. Moreover, the Wanderer Fantasy receives one of its all time greatest performances and alone is worth the modest cost of the disc.

Dvořák’s Piano Concerto has had a rather checkered history. No one would claim that it equals the composer’s Violin Concerto to say nothing of the great Cello Concerto in B minor. For years many pianists found it unplayable as Dvořák conceived the work. Thus, Vilém Kurz made a full-scale revision of the concerto’s piano part in 1919 and it was this version that was generally performed. One of its most renowned exponents was Rudolf Firkušný, who practically owned the piece. Firkušný made a number of recordings (review), the earlier ones employing the Kurz revision. Later the pianist decided the original was fine after all and his last account with the Czech Philharmonic under Václav Neumann (RCA Red Seal) from December 1990 has been at least for me the definitive version of the work.

Richter’s recording with the Bavarian State Orchestra and Carlos Kleiber also uses the original score and differs enough from Firkušný’s to make it worthwhile. Overall, though, it comes across as smooth, introverted and lacking in vitality. Kleiber, who contributed so many exciting performances, seems too Germanic here and the orchestra lacks the Czech flavour that makes Neumann’s account so convincing. A case in point is the beautiful horn solo that begins the second movement. The Czech hornist plays with a touch of vibrato that perfectly suits the music, whereas his German counterpart’s solo seems distant and rather uninvolved. The performance still merits a hearing, even if one misses the rhythmic incisiveness of Firkušný and the unique warmth of the Czech strings on the RCA disc.

Where Richter really comes into his own is in the Schubert. Initially released back in the early 1960s, it has retained its place at or near the top of the competition. He finds more in the piece than sheer virtuosity, but technically his performance also is mind-boggling. His arpeggios are not only accurate but swift as lightning and his articulation leaves nothing to be desired. The performance has plenty of power and yet great sensitivity, as he pays close attention to dynamics. He gives the second movement, Adagio, sufficient weight and gravity, while he is joyously songful in the following one. He brings the work to its rousing conclusion with bracing athleticism. There have been other great pianists, such as Alfred Brendel and Leon Fleisher, who for some have equalled Richter in this work, but none who played it better.

At its low price, this CD is highly attractive, and it would be for the Schubert at almost any cost. Gramophone’s Bryce Morrison, an expert on piano music, contributes informative notes, which by the date given (1998) were undoubtedly taken from an earlier release.

Leslie Wright

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