Thursday, 12 March 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2015)

Complete Album Collection
Sony Classical 88843014702 (18 CDs)

The reputation of legendary Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) had already preceded him when he made his debut American concert tour in late 1960. Tickets to his six Carnegie Hall recitals were sold out in advance and studio recordings of concertos and popular repertoire had been lined up. This box-set captures all these concerts and the rave reception deservedly accorded by the New York audience. 

His first recital on 19 October had five Beethoven sonatas, with a blistering account of the rarely-performed F major Sonata (Op.54) preceding the tumultuous F minor Appassionata Sonata (Op.57). His all-Prokofiev recital on 23 October was a revelation; many in the audience were encountering the recently-deceased Soviet composer's Sixth and Eighth Sonatas for the very first time.

The best way to sample these discs is to replicate the exact sequence in which the Americans were being exposed to Richter's gripping genius. His repertoire was selective but far-reaching, with Haydn, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov and Scriabin thrown into the mix. The recitals on 26 and 28 December have the same programme but different encores. The only caveat: the Carnegie Hall in-house recording equipment was rudimentary and the sound is wretched. 

The studio recordings of Brahms Piano Concerto No.2 (Chicago Symphony with Erich Leinsdorf) and Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1 (Boston Symphony / Charles Munch) with RCA Victor have excellent sound and are acknowledged classics. Two discs of 1988 live recordings of Brahms' Sonata No.1, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1, Chopin Etudes and Liszt solo works showed that his visionary spark and phenomenal technique had not dimmed through the years. These performances demonstrate why Richter was regarded by many as the greatest pianist of the 20th century.  

Complete Works For Piano
Decca 478 6348 (11 Cds) / *****

The Russia-born pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has the distinction of being the only person to have recorded every single note Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote for the piano, which includes solo works, concertos, chamber music and songs. 

This labour of love with the Decca label began in 1963 soon after his defection from Russia to the West, continuing till 2012 with a final disc of miscellaneous short and unpublished works. This box-set relives some of the best Rachmaninov playing on record, including Ashkenazy's second (and more opulent) cycle of the four piano concertos and Paganini Rhapsody, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Among the solo works, his view of the nine Etudes-Tableaux Op.39 and Corelli Variations (two recordings of each from 1973 and again in the mid-80s) remain unsurpassed for passion, colour and sheer Russian-ness. Unforgettable too are the two Suites (Op.5 & 17) and Symphonic Dances for two pianos where he is partnered by Andre Previn. 

Only the Piano Sonatas Nos.1&2 fall somewhat short of his highest ideals, the former recorded in 2011 after he had been diagnosed with arthritis. Making cameo appearance are his wife Dody and eldest son Vovka, both pianists, in the Romance and Waltz for six hands and assorted piano duets. For Ashkenazy's authority, sheer breadth and depth of emotional investment, this set is close to indispensable.

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