Also, Piano Sonata No. 1. Sviatoslav Richter, piano; Erich Leinsdorf, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA 82876-60860-2.
This is one of those legendary discs from RCA’s early stereo days and one of Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s first recorded performances in the West. Made in 1960, it is still one of the best readings of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto ever made and ranks up there with only a handful of equally fine interpretations of the work. The sound may not be quite equal to the best, but if you can give it some slack, the performance more than makes up for it.
Richter brings to the piece an unusual degree of brawny sophistication. The first movement, for example, taken at a faster-than-usual clip, seems in Richter’s hands as stormy and craggy as anything in the First Concerto. The second movement scherzo Allegro has a vigorous momentum; the slow Andante is as sweet and hushed as anything one could dream of; and the finale, with its folklike gypsy melodies, skips merrily along until reaching the work’s familiar signature tune. Richter comes through in each movement with an emotional drive and pianistic virtuosity seldom matched by modern artists. His spontaniety seems entirely unforced in a performance of eloquence, grace, and vitality, even if he indulges himself on occasion in some odd tempo shifts. Interestingly, too, I read once that Richter hated this performance; but what did he know?
The celebrated team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton put together the sound, as they did most of the RCA Living Stereo series back then. The sonics are OK but not quite up to what we have heard from other entries in the “Living Stereo” series. The audio is well spread out across the soundstage but perhaps loses a little something in ultimate definition and dynamic impact compared to the best recordings available of this work.
And speaking of the best recordings available, may I suggest that Richter can stand proudly with Gilels (DG and RCA), Kovacevich (Philips), Pollini (DG), Cliburn (RCA), Serkin (Sony), Ashkenazy (Decca), and others. That’s pretty heady company, and if I hold special places for the finesse of Gilels, the poetry of Kovacevich, and the incisiveness of Cliburn, I have to remember the price of this Richter reissue, with its excellent coupling of the Piano Sonata No. 1; then it looks even better to me.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: