BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3; Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat Major, Op. 26 “Funeral March”; Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” – Sviatoslav Richter, piano – Supraphon Archiv SU 4045-2, 64:56 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
In the music of Beethoven, Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) consistently limited his repertory of piano works, his claim, “I am not an integralist,” sufficing to justify his playing perhaps half of the 32 sonatas. Here, Richter plays three of his more frequent sonatas at Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague (1 November 1959) as part of the Prague cycle World Piano Works.
Richter’s approach to the 1798 D Major, Op. 10, No. 3 proves quite brisk, breathless and percussively aggressive in the opening Presto, although his jeu perle can beguile in the softer episodes. The sudden explosively experimental character of the music occupies Richter’s active fingers, and his alternately pounding and caressing gestures intensify the polarities in Beethoven’s revaluation of Classical form. Even the D Minor Largo e mesto slow movement undergoes a coldly chiseled, anatomical procedure, as if Richter were examining the essential nature of a beautiful melody. Soon, the music assumes a forthright sturm und drang character, introspective and darkly melancholy, a restrained anguish that does not subside. The opening delicacy of the Menuetto belies the sheer muscularity Richter can project, but only up to its counter-subject, again fraught with power. The trio has that Haydn-bred rough-and-tumble flavor that provides a foil to the almost courtly grace of the opening subject. The concluding Rondo-Allegro, built of staggered motives, suddenly erupts in toccata fashion in runs and playfully daring applications of an Alberti bass. Richter negotiates any hurdles, technical or emotional, with the suave assurance of long familiarity with the Beethoven style.
Beginning with op. 26 in 1801, around the time that personal and hearing difficulties began to weigh on Beethoven, we find a more restive composer who alters the parameters of the form in ways obvious and subtle, rearranging movements, adjusting proportions so to move the center of gravity away from the beginning of a work and closer to the conclusion, exploring new sonic terrain. The Op. 26 opens with an Andante con Variazioni, likely an homage to Haydn. Emotional restraint rules here, a salon experience from Richter, although his bass staccati and sforzati always threaten an explosion. The Scherzo, except for its new placement second, conforms to traditional expectations, given Beethoven’s penchant for volatile accents and grand gestures. But the Marcia funebre slow movement invests the Romantic notion of heroism, which Richter’s massive style in the lumbering dotted rhythm elevates to a Byronic status, redolent with the invocation of trumpets and drums. The last movement Rondo-Allegro offers one of many perpetuum mobile effects Beethoven employs in his sonatas. The unnerving syncopes in the second theme anticipate what we might have heard were Richter ever to have performed the Moonlight’s last movement. Pity, that.
Richter’s association with Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata could occupy a column all its own: typically, he takes a ferocious tempo with this piece, often at the risk of not hitting the Fs that dominate this most Neapolitan of Beethoven’s experiments in the form. Here in Prague, he dallies with the opening movement’s shifting densities, heightening the tension between its lyrical impulse and its virtually savage descents into the maelstrom. The thoughtful pauses add to the drama, which seems simultaneously contrived and improvised. The notion that an Arctic ice-pack seems to break open to expose a passionate abyss below occurs to us several times in the course of this tempestuous reading. A mighty repose dominates the D-flat Major theme-and-variations Andante con moto, sober but internally fluid in its increasing ornamentation. The finale: Allegro, ma non troppo in the form of another perpetual-motion machine likes to repeat C and D-flat in tandem as it s highest notes, and Beethoven orders that the development and recapitulation be repeated to counter-balance the weight of the first movement. Richter’s blinding speed ostensibly sweeps any notion of form before it, yet we feel that artistic closure consumes his hectically manic drive. Richter swings into the coda with a terrifying urgency, banging the keyboard, the ivories virtually flying off the stage both to stagger and liberate a rapt audience.
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