Sviatoslav Richter was among the great pianists of the 20th Century, no critic would doubt that. I’m a selective admirer of his work, but always held his Tchaikovsky 1st with von Karajan up as the finest in the catalogue. The 1962 Deutsche Grammophon recording (138-822) with the Vienna Symphony is a controversial one, with the Penguin critics (Layton et al.) divided on the verdict. The push-and-pull between the soloist and the orchestra are dramatic. For admirers of the performance, it is a hugely successful culmination of Romantic art; others see it as a lack of coordination.
I recently acquired Richter’s two earlier studio recordings of the work, the first with Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic from 1954 (Supraphon 242) and Mravinsky in 1958 (Melodiya 5469). The evolution of the performances is clear, and belies the criticisms of the Karajan recording. With Ancerl, Richter is every bit as proficient, but notably more playing the role of just one instrument among many. The soloist is smoothly in line with the overall picture, rolling along smoothly even in the more dramatic passages. I am using a first generation Supraphon pressing on 180 gram vinyl, with wide mono range.
Four years later we hear a more independent voice emerging. Mravinsky is a more robust sculptor of sound, and Richter puts himself in front ofit. But the Soviet lockstep is still present. Tempi are concise and regulated. The sound on the first pressing Melodiya I am using is far from ideal, though the ear easily tunes out the ticks and pops.
It may be reading too much into the performances by way of armchair psychology, but by the time Richter was outside of the Soviet system and free to record with other directors, I think I too would have wanted to push-and-pull with my role as soloist. The Karajan recording is free of bounds, and the culminating passages in the first and third movements are rapturous in their repartee between the pianist’s mighty tone and the orchestra’s come-back. Set in the context of these other records, the Karajan makes sense as a performance, and flows with a freedom it appears the soloist may not have had. The energy of the dynamic is unforgettable; I always note occasions when an artist decides to stop recording a work they know well. Richter never recorded the Concerto after the Karajan.
HvK did record the work again, with Lazar Berman and a young Evgeny Kissin. Both received strong reviews from critics. But the Richter is the one to hear.
A footnote: the only outside comparison I used here was the late Van Cliburn, whose 1958 barnburner comes close to the sheer strength Richter exudes. I am using a quadraphonic tape, which provides a totally different listening environment but as for performance — matches Richter in many ways. There is symbiosis with Kondrashin and the young Texan. But again, none of the dynamism that drives the Karajan performance.