Richter Plays Szymanowski in Live Concert


SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 & 3. Mythes: 3 Poèmes for Violin & Piano (“Dryades and Pan” played twice)* / Sviatoslav Richter, pianist; *Oleg Kagan, violinist / Doremi 2015 (live: November 26, 1982)

This disc, Vol. 23 in Doremi’s ongoing series of CDs by Sviatoslav Richter, is one of the most fascinating because it is focused on a single concert of music by Karol Szymanowski. Sandwiched between the Second and Third Sonatas is a performance of the composer’s superb Mythes for violin and piano, in which Richter is joined by Oleg Kagan.

It’s a fascinating excursion. Richter, of course, is Richter, meaning that his approach to almost any music is that of a piano titan who combined a powerful touch and granitic fingering with moments of tenderness. It was his modus operandi over a career that lasted an astonishing 64 years. Not everything he played survived the emotional outpouring he expended but he was nothing if not consistent and, deep down, a serious artist who tried to do the very best he could with every piece he played.

Thus as one listens to this recital, happily recorded in digital stereo, one is almost immediately overwhelmed by the power of his approach. The question, of course, is whether or not the music of Szymanowski can withstand a Mussorgsky-Scriabin approach, and I feel it can for the simple reason that Szymanowski was strongly influenced by the latter composer. Like Scriabin, he employed a somewhat atonal style which he blended with Debussy-like impressionism, producing emotionally powerful music within a post-modern harmonic idiom.

This is exactly the kind of music that was meat and potatoes to Richter, and it shows in these extremely well-crafted performances. One can almost hear the intensity of his mind at work as he plays the Second Sonata, particularly the slow second movement. Perhaps the one small complaint I have is that Richter does not quite allow some breathing room in spots, but this is more than compensated for by his assured grasp of the music’s form. Indeed, I can scarcely think of another pianist who so completely enters into the spirit of the score as he. So long as you are comfortable with Richter’s immensely powerful, leonine keyboard approach, I think you’ll be suitably impressed by his playing here.

Richter is surprisingly light and subtle in the Mythes, but in this case it was violinist Kagan who I felt had too heavy an approach. His thick, Russian tone seemed to overwhelm the music in “La fontaine d’Aretheuse” despite some moments of sublime beauty. This is, quite simply, one of the most Debussy-like of Szymanowski’s compositions, and a light, French-style violinist (or a reasonable facsimile, like Yehudi Menuhin) is ideal for it. As the music progressed, however, I felt that Kagan produced some moments of great beauty in “Narcisse,” and “Dryades et Pan” came out very good indeed—so much so that the duo was forced to encore it—though I have to admit that the recently-unearthed recording by Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin (see my Menuhin review) is nearly perfect in expression.

Happily, however, Richter continues the lightness of touch he exhibits in the Mythes in his performance of the equally impressionistic Sonata No. 3. Indeed, this may be one of the pianist’s all-time best performances of light and airy music. He finds exactly the right expression for this one-movement work, and is not afraid to bring out the power (to some extent, at least) when it is called for. This is simply a magnificent interpretation, relaxed and fully in control of his musical and technical resources. He almost becomes the music, so rapt is he in its quasi-mystical sound world.

In short, then, a delightful excursion into Szymanowski’s unusual sound world and an important addition to the Richter discography.

—© Lynn René Bayley

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