New Richter Release of Live Schumann

DHR-7786.20170201024113

R. SCHUMANN: Novelettes, Op. 21 Nos. 1 & 2. Fantasie in C, Op. 17. Liederkreis: Mit myrten und Rosen.* Piano Quintet in E-flat.+ C. SCHUMANN: Er ist gerkommen in Sturm und Regen* / Sviatoslav Richter, pianist; *Nina Dorliac, soprano; +Borodin String Quartet / Doremi DHR-7786 (recorded in studio, Moscow, 1950 [C. Schumann song]; live: Bucharest, 1948 [R. Schumann song]; Dubrovnik, August 15, 1967 {Novelettes]; Budapest, June 12, 1980 [Fantasie]; Moscow, December 31, 1985 [Quintet])

This latest entry in Doremi’s series of live Richter performances, numbered Vol. 7, centers around the music of Robert Schumann except for one song by his wife Clara. Both the Piano Quintet and the Fantasie are released here for the first time ever, while the two songs with Richter’s long-rime partner, soprano Nina Dorliac, see their first CD issue here.

Sometimes you really have to feel sorry for most of these Soviet-era musicians. Stuck in a totalitarian state, the likes of which the new American Left is desperately trying to force on our own country today, Richter had little opportunity to actually play the piano professionally until he was 19 or 20 years old, he didn’t study at a conservatory until he was 23, and he didn’t get to perform in Western countries until 1958, by which time he was 43 years old. Happily he was well enough known behind the Iron Curtain to be recorded as early as 1948. He also lived long enough to have a splendid career in the West, and was lucky enough to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union as well.

Richter’s aesthetic was of a kind not much in favor nowadays. He was a steel-fingered virtuoso who played the piano like the crashing of two trains on the same track, but unlike Vladimir Horowitz, who was a virtuoso first and foremost, Richter tried hard to be a sensitive artist. He modified his steel-fingered approach to match the character of each composer, and I was surprised to learn on Wikipedia that he was a lifelong lover of opera and vocal music. Even in his most tender moments he would never be confused for such coloristic pianists as Cortot or Cherkassky, but his tenderness always seemed to come as a surprise to those who only “heard” the steel-fingered virtuoso. Thus, in the Novelettes, one hears an aggressive keyboard approach that takes no prisoners—perhaps a bit heavy for this music—mixed with moments of great tenderness. Richter always “bound” his phrases lyrically, no matter how strong the keyboard attack, but he used very little pedal. In this respect his playing was, curiously, very close in approach to that of Benjamin Britten, whose own pianistic skills were vastly underrated.

It may come as a shock to those who never saw Richter in concert that he was an incredibly shy, almost introverted performer. He detested being photographed while playing and also tried, to the best of his ability, to block all unauthorized recording or filming of his concerts. Most of the time, especially in his later years, he played with the house lights dimmed, his sheet music illuminated only by a tiny lamp at the top of the music stand. Not everything he did was perfect or among the best of all performances of that specific music, but he tried to be a sincere artist every time he touched the keyboard.

Of the performances on this CD, only the Clara Schumann song with soprano Nina Dorliac is a studio recording. The Robert Schumann song comes from a live performance in 1950, although both songs are issued here for the first time on CD. Both the Fantaisie and the Quintet are released here for the first time ever, which means that only the 1967 Novelettes have been previously released on CD.

Dorliac & Richter c. 1950

The Fantasie performance, from 1980, found him in a particularly felicitous mood. Even at his most stentorian, his piano sings and exults in the music, and the digital sonics make his playing sound a bit warmer than usual. I was particularly interested to hear the songs because I had never ever heard, or heard of, Nina Dorliac before. She had a very pretty soubrette voice, very expressive; a shame that she sang in Russian instead of German, but you can’t have everything.

Despite its 1985 performance date, the sonics on the Quintet are quite rough, making the piano sound boxy and the strings surprisingly scrappy. Undoubtedly this was one of those performances recorded secretly without Richter’s knowledge or permission, so we should be grateful that we have it at all. It’s a very fine performance, ebullient and forceful as one would expect, surprisingly so in the third movement,  although I personally prefer the wonderful recording by pianist Joyce Yang and the Alexander String Quartet on Foghorn Classics.

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag, as one would expect when live performances heretofore unknown surface. I particularly loved the Fantasie and the songs, and portions of the quintet were very well conceived and executed. The choice is yours.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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