Tchaikovsky and Richter

HvKSviatoslav 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 photo-2242) 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, photo-4though 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 photoquadraphonic 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.

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

3 responses to “Tchaikovsky and Richter

  • Todd Ristau

    Hello. I feel Karajan is often less than an ideal accompanist. His tendency is to overpower soloists; a good example being the Brahms Violin Concerto with Mutter you think so highly of. In other words, Karajan does not like to be upstaged. In the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto, at times Richter and Karajan sound to be in competition with each other, rather than collaborating. But it is difficult to argue about the results… this is a thrilling performance.

    Regards, Todd

  • Morris Orens

    I somewhat disagree with Jonathan. Although my Parliament issue of Richter/Ancerl doesn’t match the DG sound of HVK, it seems to me Richter is having way more fun with Ancerl and playing much freer even if the coordination with orchestra is less precise. I liked the Mravinsky as well on Mlodiya but I can hear Jonathan’s point.
    I realize that this was not intended to be a survey but Jonathan opened the door, so I’ll rush in. For great DG sound and a stirring performance I recommend Argerich/Dutoit,for charm Bachauer on HMV and for grandeur Solomon on HMV.
    As terrific as the Van Cliburn truly is, I believe Ashkenazy/Maazel on Decca is definitive-great sound and spectacular soloist and orchestra. This was Ash’s first Decca recording and he and the co obviously wanted it to be first-rate.

  • Morris Orens

    Sorry to go on endlessly but I inadvertently played the CD of Horowitz’s 1941 performance with Toscanini and it simply blows away all others. Horowitz is at his prime and tears thru the work at an unbelievable pace and T keeps up! Sound is of course a bit ancient but who cares.

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