A Beginner’s Guide to Sviatoslav Richter
I am an omnivorous creature and I want a lot of things. It is not because I am ambitious or try to do a great many things simultaneously. I simply love very many things and the desire to bring to the listeners all that I love never leaves me.
Music is where I go to escape from words, but sometimes evangelism has its place, and Sviatoslav Richter, despite his fame, merits more. He is a model for total and uncompromising devotion to one’s art and the incommensurable rewards possible from such. I will let two other estimable pianists convey the force of his performances and their significance.
I think I can safely claim to speak for many Hungarian musicians, when I say that from our childhood on, for decades, Richter’s concerts were the greatest musical experience we had. We were fortunate that he was happy to play in Hungary. In addition to his indescribable personal aura, his unique physical and intellectual characteristics, the simplicity, thoughtfulness and honesty of his approach supplied us for years with the strength and the desire to study and make music.
He did not play the works, but – like the greatest of actors – lived them. I don’t know if it is possible to explain to anybody the extraordinary phenomenon his personality and playing created. We can only hope that this can also be sensed through the recordings, for Richter is one of the few performers whose individuality is clearly manifest on a recording, regardless of its quality, and at each subsequent listening his playing gives a greater, more staggering experience than we are able to remember.
After what we lived through during the war, the extreme strain of efforts and nerves, excruciating torments and tortures of people … we wanted to have the same in art – frenzy, fanaticism, a tornado and earthquake… And there comes an artist against an emotional background like that – a frenzied and ultimately strong one like a volcanic eruption or tornado, who sees the form in music as an objective, who discards minor nuances that impede the form. He made the audience listen to music without letting them catch their breath. We found the one we had been waiting for – it was Sviatoslav Richter.
Sviatoslav Richter’s discography is the messiest I have ever encountered, easily putting Sun Ra’s to shame. Richter’s huge repertoire, his thousands of concerts, and his fragmented and irregular programming have generated an explosion of issues in highly variable sound by highly variable labels which usually fall out of print quickly. Below is my attempt to single out a comparatively small set of representative, high-quality performances in acceptable-or-greater sound that to me represent Richter at his greatest. Except for the rarities at the bottom, they are readily available at the time I write this, in CD or digital form. I consider all the performances below to range from superb to beyond belief, enough that the superlatives are often interchangeable; words won’t convey the virtues of these performances. Lesser recordings are lesser only by Richter’s standards.
Some wag once said that as you go into the past, the performance quality of Richter recordings approaches infinity while the sound quality approaches zero. It’s a caricature, but the bottom line is that the average recording quality during Richter’s greatest years was mediocre at best, and even with random distribution, half of his greatest performances will be worse than that. Richter himself said sound quality didn’t matter as long as you could hear the performance, and indeed, those with ears… Still, I have tried to avoid blatantly dodgy and unlistenable releases when possible. I have tried to avoid recordings with obtrusively poor sound quality when possible–the one exception is for Chopin’s scherzos, in a truly possessed performance.
This page could not have been possible without the discographical labor of Falk Schwartz, Lawrence Gray and all those at Pianist Discography, John Fowler, and many others. The denizens of rec.classical.music.recordings have provided many tips over the years.
1960: All the Beethoven here is great (Pathetique, bagatelles), but the Appassionata is transcendent. By its end, it’s the sound of a single person focused on surpassing all mental and physical limitations…and seemingly succeeding. Nearly a miracle.
1963: The other crown jewel of Richter’s Beethoven performances: Beethoven’s final three sonatas played in sequence at the peak of Richter’s powers, followed by some perfect miniatures from Brahms and one of Richter’s best Chopin nocturnes. Decent sound too.
1975: Richter’s Hammerklavier is gripping, especially in the last movement, but not fully satisfying. I think Gilels handles the third movement better, and Richter’s technical skills are not quite where they were in the 1960s. But overall I still prefer him to anyone else. The version below is from Prague around the same time, but is fairly similar. This CD also includes Beethoven’s 3rd sonata, which Richter clearly delights in, and some lovely op. 126 bagatelles.
1956/1962: Karel Ančerl provides propulsive and effervescent backing to the two Beethoven concertos Richter played, and he inhabits them perfectly. (Richter is at his most comfortable in early Beethoven.) Very good Czech sound. Not on YouTube but this contemporaneous performance with Kondrashin is very similar.
1950s: For $.99, you get a four-hour grab bag of mostly incredible 50s performances, notably including Richter’s best Diabelli Variations, Prokofiev’s 7th sonata played to perfection, a very good Schubert D960, a Pictures that sounds better than Sofia and is nearly as good, and other goodies, all in mediocre-to-poor sound. Worth it at twice (or ten times) the price.
1960: About half of Chopin’s op. 10 and op. 25 etudes, played with stunning power, and one of Richter’s greatest Chopin interpretations, the Polonaise-Fantasie op. 61, given a stark fragility and loneliness with glimmers of tenderness. The 1956 Shostakovich op. 87 selections are also superb, the best performances available (except for #4, which he bettered in the 60s by slowing it down further). Clear 50s mono sound.
1960: Chopin’s Ballades. Richter’s powers of concentration and organization again defy belief. Side note: I don’t in fact find Richter incredible in all Chopin. Richter’s nocturnes are a mixed bag because actual delicacy is something distant from Richter (as fragility, austerity, vulnerability, finesse, and restraint are not), and that’s what many of the nocturnes require. (For all his emotional range, I find little delicacy, relaxation, or fun in Richter’s playing, and that does make much Mozart problematic for him.) But in the etudes, ballades, and scherzi, I’ve gone back to him more often than anyone else.
1965: Richter’s supernova intensity in Chopin’s four scherzi here is unmatched by any other performance I’ve ever heard from him (or anyone else), suggesting he reached some kind of apotheosis in 1965. Some of the roughest sound on this list, which is no mean feat, but the performance justifies tolerating it. The rest of the performance is just as possessed and features aching performances of two of Brahms’ Ballades op. 10–also very rarely played–and two short but massive Etudes-Tableaux. One would think a better tape of Richter at Carnegie Hall in 1965 would exist… Below is the first scherzo, but the whole album is available on YouTube, though note the Carnegie Hall performance starts with Schubert D575 and ends with the Etudes-Tableaux.
1963: Richter was notoriously uncomfortable in the studio and nearly always played worse than live. This is one monumental exception, where he thoroughly inhabits Schubert’s virtuoso piece with exuberance, authority, sensitivity, and melancholy in perfect proportion. This edition couples it with a fantastic Schumann Fantasy (also studio) and live Papillons. Excellent sound.
1958: An incredible Schubert D958–the greatest I know–is the centerpiece here, along with a thundering Schumann Toccata. These items also appear in somewhat better sound on the Richter in Hungary boxset below (and that is what I’ve embedded, so be forewarned this disc sounds worse). This edition has the rest of the concert, which is quite fine as well but not as essential.
1957/1956: More dramatic Schubert from behind the Iron Curtain, both D845 and D850 exceptional, as well as a gorgeous 899/2 impromptu. After the Wanderer and D958, these are where to go next if you like Richter’s Schubert. (I do feel D960 partly escapes him as the other sonatas do not.) Live-in-the-studio, I presume, with acceptable sound.
1956/1960: Beyond the Schumann Fantasy, Papillons, and Toccata included on the Schubert discs above, here are more Schumann studio recordings, as good as the others. Most notably, Richter pulls intense, pained drama from Schumann’s lesser-known Humoreske.
1971: Stereo studio recordings. Despite that, these are rock-solid performances, and the gains in intensity from the live versions aren’t quite enough to make me suggest them first. (Hanssler’s Schumann/Brahms box has sterling live versions, but also has a disastrous mastering mistake on one of the Brahms pieces when a Windows alert interrupts Brahms’s stately 118/3 two and a half minutes in.) The Symphonic Etudes below is live from 1968 and more visceral than the studio recording, but the studio recording is still fantastic by any standard.
1963: Excellent live Schumann from Italy. Very worthwhile and in very good sound.
1961: Knock-em-dead concerto performances from Richter and Kirill Kondrashin, in excellent sound. As a bonus, this version includes an excellent but not fantastic Liszt sonata from Livorno in 1966…unfortunately, the 1965 Carnegie Hall performance is truly diabolical.
1965/1956-58: This titanic account of Liszt’s sprawling yet focused sonata (like his best Chopin scherzi, from Carnegie Hall in 1965) is majestic and never lets go. Unfortunately, there’s a big caveat, and not just with the pointless transfer to SACD. Previous issues of this performance by Philips and Palexa were too slow and shifted down a half-step, so it nearly became the Sonata in Bb minor. Praga corrects the speed but not the pitch. Still, the performance is decisively better than any other readily available, so what can you do (aside from watching the pitch-corrected version on YouTube below)? The CD also includes fearless and confident Transcendental Etudes from the 50s at the right pitch, though these are available in the Hänssler Chopin/Liszt box set below.
1974: Richter’s studio Well-Tempered Clavier is readily available, but as masterful as it is, I never connected to it. I did, however, connect to a live 1969 performance in Moscow of Book I, possibly the best I know, which is now hard to obtain on CD. It is, however, easy to obtain on Youtube, so that’s what I’ve embedded. The live performance of both books from Innsbruck in 1974 is far better than the studio version and overall superb (and essential for Book II, which Richter played very rarely)…but this is always the Book I that I go back to.
1954: Three great accounts of three great concertos, the Bach being the greatest. Conductor Vaclav Talich’s Bach is zippier than Karl Sanderling’s pokey Melodiya recording, the Prokofiev is incisive, and the Tchaikovsky easily bests the disappointing studio recording with Karajan…while not being quite as good (in sound or performance) as the panoramic Mravinsky account on Melodiya.
1948/1961-3: The 1948 performances of the Italian Concerto and the Fantasia and Fugue BWV 944 are both revelatory (and in surprisingly good sound). The early-60s performances of Haydn XVI:50, Beethoven op. 26, and Chopin’s first two ballades are all superb as well, but easier to find in comparably great performances.
1958: The recording that got me hooked, from the opening bars of Pictures at an Exhibition (complete with blatant yet irrelevant mistake). Two moving Schubert impromptus, a lighter-than-air performance of Liszt’s Feux Follets, a glistening Rachmaninoff prelude: Richter’s essence is palpable. Actually a radio recording, but Bulgaria’s engineering makes the USSR’s look futuristic in comparison. There’s a Naxos transfer available as an import that steadies the sound a little, but this concert is never going to sound great (except in the regards where it really counts).
1967: A joyous, near-manic performance of Haydn’s final sonata. (A 1949 performance is even faster, but this performance is better-defined.) Two Schumann Novelettes and Weber’s third sonata (which also ends hyperactively) are also worthy, but the Haydn is the highlight here.
1967: The complete Book II of Debussy’s Preludes, not played often by Richter, and yet he inhabits them completely. Unlike Chopin’s nocturnes or Mozart’s concertos, these pieces are ambiguous enough for Richter to more than compensate for any lack of delicacy with other oblique and indirect emotions. My favorite versions. (Almost all of Book I was recorded for the BBC in 1961 but is out of print.) For contrast, this disc also includes a delightful Haydn Hob. XVI:22 (where Richter always feels more at home than in Mozart).
1970/1974: These three violin sonatas by Brahms and Franck are exquisitely rendered by Richter and David Oistrakh. The rest of Oistrakh on this $9 digital compilation is fantastic as well, needless to say.
1958/1956: These performances of Brahms and Franck’s quintets seem near-perfect to me, as much because of the Borodin and Bolshoi Quartets as Richter. Highest-quality Soviet Melodiya studio mono.
1959: Two (three actually) Russian warhorses play two Russian warhorses. You’ve heard these works, and these performances are as authoritative and definitive as you could imagine. They may not be the final word, but they feel like it.
1967/1978/1984: Richter’s 1967 version of Bartok’s 2nd with Evgeny Svetlanov is far more visceral and aggressive than the studio version with Maazel two years later, even if the sound is one-dimensional. The Hindemith and Stravinsky show the later Richter in modern repertoire and are both excellent.
Technology has caused the price of box sets to come way down, so the danger is less to your wallet than to your listening backlog. (This is why I recommend starting with the single discs above.) The collections below all easily best the more prominent major label boxes.
1954-1993: Overall the best Richter box presently available, and possibly the best ever. Carefully and lovingly compiled by the great pianist Dezsö Ránki, this has very good sound quality overall and a wide selection of repertoire. Notably, it contains a beautiful Beethoven op. 101, an unbearably desperate Shostakovich op. 87/4 in E minor, the amazing Schubert D958 mentioned above in better sound, some incredible Bach from 1954, a generous Ravel selection, solid Chopin scherzos, a later recording of most of Debussy’s first book of preludes that is now the only one easily available (as well as a Spoleto-era performance of Book II). I am not so down on Richter’s later recordings, which would still be the envy of most pianists, but a good rule of thumb is that performances of pieces before 1975 best those of the same pieces from after 1975, sometimes by a huge margin. Not always, however: the 1983 Etudes-Tableaux here do justice to Rachmaninov and are nearly as titanic as his 1950s performances of the same pieces.
1960 (mostly): The core of this box is 10 cds of Richter’s 1960 Carnegie Hall performances, briefly released and then pulled for decades over obscure legal wrangling. John Fowler’s review details the contents and circumstances quite well, but among the treasures are half a dozen of Beethoven’s early and middle sonatas, several discs of intense, spiky Prokofiev, a large helping of sparkling Rachmaninoff preludes, a terrifying version of Scriabin’s 5th sonata, an all-Debussy program, some gossamer Ravel, and a miscellany of Schumann, Chopin, and Haydn. The scope isn’t as wide as the other boxes and several of the Beethoven and Prokofiev sonatas are duplicated, but the sustained intensity is gobsmacking. The box also throws in good-quality contemporaneous studio recordings, including Richter’s no-less-than-excellent Brahms 2nd Concerto recording with Leinsdorf, which he notoriously disliked (I know of no ideal Richter Brahms 2, with the Korodi performance–in spite of a very poor orchestra–being my favorite and Mravinsky and Rowicki behind it), and some less essential late work.
1949-63: Hänssler’s box sets are some of the best-organized collections of Richter’s Soviet-era work (up to 1963, after which copyright exerts its ugly hand), their prices (except digitally) are a tremendous bargain, and it’s only quality control that makes me hesitate to recommend them: the Windows USB-disconnect sound on their Schumann/Brahms box is the most glaring flaw. This box cuts off the first minute of Prokofiev’s 6th sonata, and I’m sure there are other errors I’m unaware of. And on average, their mastering isn’t quite as good as the best releases of the same material (it tends to be muffled), though it’s passable. Still, I conditionally recommend this box in particular for collating some of his rarest 1950s repertoire in uniformly great performances, specifically two CDs of Scriabin sonatas, etudes, and preludes, as well as the 12 Shostakovich op. 87 preludes and fugues he performed at the time (he added four more in the 1970s, not included here). The 4CDs of Prokofiev and Rachmaninov and a CD of Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov–all excellent–also plug some gaps.
1947-1963: This box sweeps up primarily Eastern Bloc performances of 18 Beethoven sonatas. (Missing are those he only performed later: 1, 4, 6, 29.) Absolutely no arguing with the performance quality, though equal or superior performances in better sound exist of some sonatas. The final three sonatas are from the godly Leipzig date above, but here in more muffled sound, and the zenith of the Leningrad Appassionata is also here. Also included are a sterling 1951 recital of the Diabelli and Eroica variations in decent sound, Richter’s two Beethoven concertos (I prefer the Prague versions), and the complete cello sonatas with Rostropovich in far more lively performances than in the too-restrained studio versions they recorded for Philips in the 60s. Beethoven’s youthful 3rd sonata is better here than on the Hammerklavier disc, an all-around joyous performance. I can’t find these performances on YouTube so here is a contemporaneous op. 101.
1949-63: This is the other Hänssler set worth the attention of the newbie. It collects all (?) of Richter’s early Chopin and Liszt repertoire (there’s no Liszt sonata, where the first known recording is 1965) in generally astounding performances. But most significantly, Richter conquers Szymanowski’s 2nd sonata with equal quantities of terror and passion in a distant but acceptable 1959 live recording tacked onto the last disc. An incredible performance. Unfortunately, Hänssler’s quality control fails again in Szymanowski’s op. 50 mazurkas, with some awful clicking. (A bootleg exists without the clicks.) Did anyone listen to this before release?
1978/1979/1971: There are excellent, measured 1970s performances of four earlier Schubert sonatas here, along with a disc of fine shorter pieces. Richter’s more stentorian D958 doesn’t work quite as well as the 1958 version, but the essential item here is D894, whose first movement is slowed to a glacial 25 minutes and achieves unthinkable depth. Richter called it his favorite Schubert sonata, but you would not understand why until you hear his version.
1956-1965: The single best major-label box, even if it is overpriced for 9 LP-length CDs. It has been subsumed by the monster Decca-Philips-DG 51CD box, but the cream of that messy assemblage is all here. In particular, the DG collection includes Debussy’s Estampes and Mozart’s K466, one of Richter’s best Mozart performances, as well as Prokofiev’s 5th concerto, a massive Scriabin 5th sonata, and a great deal of first-rate Schumann. Sound quality is above average, as you’d expect. Of the other major label boxes, the Complete Warner Recordings in fact primarily gathers together mostly middling EMI recordings. Aside from the brilliant Schubert and Schumann listed above, the box mostly contains very good but subdued 1970s-era studio concerto and chamber performances, and some unessential late recordings. As for that 51CD Philips-Decca-DG monster, it inevitably has some true gold buried in the mess beyond the DG albums, such as the rarely-performed Brahms op. 119 quartet of pieces:
OUT OF PRINT
1960s: The most valuable of the sadly discontinued BBC Legends series, with a fantastic set of all the Debussy preludes Richter played and a nearly-as-fantastic set of Chopin, including maybe Richter’s most demonic op. 10/4 ever and some rarely-played mazurkas. Cheap used copies still seem to be available.
A 15CD box of live Prague recordings, one of the best introductory representations of Richter’s work in generally good sound. Too many highlights to mention, including five discs of Beethoven (including the Hammerklavier), Chopin’s ballades (the performance mentioned above) and etudes, a radical Schubert D960 anticipating the apotheosis of D894, Ravel’s Miroirs, five Liszt etudes, and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Deserves a place alongside the Hungary box. I prefer it, but it may be sentiment and familiarity.
1969: As mentioned above, the greatest Book I I know.
1950s/1960s: A very solid box set, nearly the equal of the Prague, including the transcendent Appassionata and Scriabin etudes, a striking Franck performance, and much more. It’s been reissued in part but not in whole.
1964/1966: Powerful live performances of the Grieg and Dvorak concertos with Kondrashin in the Grieg and Smetáček in the Dvorak. Not included in the “complete” Prague box, of course.