The Performance of a Lifetime: Sviatoslav Richter Plays Brahms

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83
Beethoven Sonata No. 23, Op. 57 “Appassionata”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf (conductor)
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
Sony G010001718537R

On 15 October 1960 in Chicago, Sviatoslav Richter gave his eagerly awaited North American debut with a sensational performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, the latter standing in at short notice for Fritz Reiner who had been taken ill. The concert created quite a stir, one critic writing that Richter gave “the performance of a lifetime”. Two days later, the work was recorded by RCA to produce an instant classic that has never been out of the catalogue, released here in a remastered version.

Richter recorded the work nine times between 1950 – 1969 but it is this performance with the CSO/Leinsdorf that is widely regarded as a landmark and it earned a Grammy Award in 1961 for “Best Classical Performance – Concerto or Instrumental Soloist”. However, the ever fastidious Richter was dissatisfied with it, exclaiming “one of my worst records, even though people still praise it to the skies. I can’t bear it!”

Listening to this vibrant recording afresh, it’s hard to agree with Richter as his performance is revelatory. Incandescent without being imposing or mannered, he tosses aside the phenomenal technical challenges with alacrity – just listen to the sustained crescendo in the opening cadenza, the startling pianissimo octave passages in the second movement or the ease with which he despatches massive chords and dramatic flourishes. It’s matched with playing of great sensitivity in the mesmerising slow movement with fine cantabile playing from the orchestra throughout. All in all, a performance not to be missed.

Following his debut in Chicago, Richter went on to give a series of wildly successful recitals a few days later at Carnegie Hall in New York. The first programme featured five Beethoven Sonatas and concluded with a now legendary performance of the Appassionata Sonata. Richter’s recording of the work shortly after for RCA “raised the bar for all of us” noted the pianist Malcolm Frager, “…no one was able to play [it] without worrying that the audience might have the sound of Richter’s performance in their ears.”

It’s an astonishing and sustained performance, played with searing intensity and conviction by Richter and it’s a rollercoaster of tension and drama. A respite to the adrenalin rushes is given in the tender slow movement which has fine filigree finger passages. But it’s in the final movement where Richter really lets rip. While some pianists match his demonic speed few can equal the almost visceral intensity of his playing. Exhilarating and breathless, it’s an unforgettable performance and a must-buy in this remastered version.

Kevin Painting

Published 20 February 2017 on primephonic.