Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major; Piano Sonata No. 29 “Hammerklavier”; Bagatelles Nos. 1, 4 & 6 – Sviatoslav Richter, p. – ICA Classics

Richter offers towering Beethoven in a recital from London's Royal Albert Hall, an exhibition of immense technique fused to a transcendent musical imagination.

Published on December 3, 2012

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major; Piano Sonata No. 29 “Hammerklavier”; Bagatelles Nos. 1, 4 & 6 – Sviatoslav Richter, p. – ICA Classics

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3; Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”; Bagatelles, Op. 126: No. 1 in G Major, No. 4 in B Minor, No. 6 in E-flat Major – Sviatoslav Richter, p. – ICA Classics ICAC 5084, 80:49 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

We might characterize Sviatoslav Richter’s appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall 18 June 1975 as “the lion and the lamb,” given the extraordinary range of temperament his rather tempestuous approach to Beethoven involves, opening as he does with a most staggering Allegro con brio for the 1795 Sonata in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3, the composer’s first truly bravura solo work. Besides delivering pungent sforzati, Richter grants the movement an epic scale. Almost immediately, Richter offers in the E Major Adagio any number of pearly nuanced arpeggiated figures of the kind of tendresse only a velvet glove could produce. Intimacy permeates the slow movement, all the more dramatic for having been juxtaposed against such heroic impulses. That Beethoven often departs emotionally from the Classically poised slow movement of Haydn with his sudden outbursts of savage emotion does not escape Richter’s potent realization, especially when the martial version of the tune becomes “symphonic.”

Richter makes nice work of the fugal presentation of the Scherzo, particularly as the second section allows him once more to display his legato arpeggios in glorious colors. The kind of intensely volatile stretti that appear here prefigure the almost hysterical application of the same devices in the B Minor Bagatelle from Op. 126, in which Richter becomes as percussively manic as we’ve ever heard him. More scherzando effects permeate the Allegro assai finale, on which Richter maintains a taut but light touch. The kind of jabbing precision Richter thrusts against the smoothly clean runs creates just the nervous energy that must have disturbed many a patron who attended Beethoven’s original concerts.

The Op. 126 Beethoven Bagatelles represent many of his final thoughts in keyboard form. The experience of a musical kernel or atom suddenly generates volcanic heat or intensely compressed meditation. The G Major in Richter’s hands may well align itself to the musings in Op. 110, a combination of fantasy and rapt depth of feeling. After the whirlwind B Minor, the E-flat Major also starts off via a Presto tornado; then, in a liquid turn-about, it has Richter proffer, Andante amabile e con moto, a charming moment of ingenuous lyricism with a bravura coda. 

For many of the Richter tours of the 1960s and 1970s, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (1819) served as his calling-card. As opposed to the more flighty or reckless moments in the C Major Sonata and B Minor Bagatelle, the whole of the B-flat Major Sonata seems wrought from one canny piece of classical marble. Taut and intelligent control palpably directs the monumental confrontation of titanic opposites of dramatic feeling. Defiance and religious conviction hurtle themselves in powerful arched waves, as if doubt were a crucial exercise of faith. In spite of his granite sonority, Richter elicits the most exquisite and diaphanous of trills. The strict counterpoint, the sense of note-against-note, becomes abundantly clear as an expression of a profound dialectic. The last two movements literally transcend music and become an affirmation of aesthetic morality. If ever Beethoven might represent the musical incarnation of “Prometheus Unbound,” this high-minded, digitally-awesome performance of the Hammerklavier justifes the epithet. Along with the recent release of the Mindru Katz version of this sonata on Cembal d’amour, the Hammerklavier may claim to have found its true interpreters.

—Gary Lemco

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