CHOPIN: Etudes Op. 10 Nos. 4, 10, and 11; Etudes Op. 25 Nos. 5, 8, 11, and 12; Ballades Op. 23, 38, 47, and 52; Nocturne No. 1, Op. 62 No. 2; Nocturne No. 2, Op. 72 No. 1; Polonaise No. 7 in A-flat, Op. 61, “Polonaise-fantaisie” – Sviatoslav Richter, piano – Praga Digitals bi-channel stereo SACD PRD/DSD 350 091, 74:06 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
RAVEL: Gaspard de la nuit; Piano Concerto in G; Valses nobles et sentimentales; DEBUSSY: Children’s Corner – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano – Praga Digitals bi-channel stereo SACD PRD/DSD 350 062, 73:04 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:
With these releases, Praga Digitals restores to the catalog recordings by piano giants of the recent past. I’m not sure that stereo DSD remastering makes a great deal of difference especially in the case of the Michelangeli disc, but about two-thirds of the Richter disc, recorded in 1988, benefit from excellent sound and so represent a real treat for fans of the great Russian pianist, who, like me, don’t appreciate the fact that we often have to settle for mediocre sound recordings of the master. [However, the Michelangeli is mostly broadcast mono and the Richter, altho better quality, is clearly an historical recording, so I have put these two in our Reissues Section rather than our Hi-Res Section. Perhaps that is what they mean by “bi-channel.”…Ed.]
As I suggest, with these recordings of the Chopin Etudes, Nocturnes, and Polonaise-fantaisie, we don’t have to settle. They were set down in July of 1988 at a live concert, which Richter very much favored over recording in the studio. As expected, Richter’s whirlwind performances of the Etudes are bedeviled by remarkably few slips and are sterling examples of virtuosity in service of the music. The lightning tempi take nothing away from the articulation of Chopin’s often grueling pedagogical aims, whether to train the pianist in the use of the thumbs or in the execution of chords played at different dynamic levels—or encourage digital dexterity in general. These are breathtaking interpretation that every pianists and lover of fine playing should hear.
The two Nocturnes give Richter the chance to demonstrate the poetic side of his and Chopin’s nature, and they’re as beautifully sustained in their moods as the Etudes are volatile in theirs. The majestic Polonaise-fantasie allows the pianist to work on a larger canvas, and Richter’s performance develops the grand architecture of the piece with admirable pacing and interpretive nuance.
It’s difficult to tell from the notes when the Ballades were recorded. A typo confusingly states that Nos. 1 through 3 were inscribed in October of 1972 but that all four were set down, instead, in February 1960! Take your choice; none of these recordings comes close to the 1988 recordings in terms of presence, realism, and ambiance. But the performances are magical. Richter gets inside the emotional world of these pioneering works of Chopin, which inspired other pianists to tell musical stories through the agency of the modified sonata-allegro form that he created. Even No. 2 in F Major, thought to be the weakest of the four, makes an impression in Richter’s sympathetic interpretation. I’m certainly glad that Praga Digitals saw fit to release these recordings and with the improvements that DSD remastering seems to have brought to those 1988 sessions.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was a controversial artist, not especially comfortable recording either live or in the studio. He accepted few invitations to play and often failed to show up when he did accept. Unlike Richter, whose repertoire was vast (Richter once stated that he had material for about eighty different programs, not counting chamber music!), Michelangeli’s repertory was slim and his recorded legacy slim indeed, including the composers represented on the current CD, plus some Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and Chopin, among few other composers.
However, among his recordings, the live recording of Gaspard de la nuit included here was groundbreaking; most pianists who subsequently tackled this unforgiving piece had to come to terms with Michelangeli’s interpretive choices even if they went a different route. And even in 1960 made-for-broadcast mono sound, you can tell that this is a formidable performance. The recording of course preserves few of Michelangeli’s interpretive nuances in pristine form, but you can still appreciate the security of all those many repeated soft bell-like chords that sound under the melody line in the last movement, Le Gibet. This is a valuable release for the inclusion of Gaspard de la nuit alone.
As a recording, the 1952 live recording of Valse nobles et sentimentales is even less appealing, being in especially monochrome mono. But again, it’s a beautiful performance, the equal of many you’ll hear in the finest modern sound, so it, too, will be of value to pianists and Ravelians alike.
The other pieces on the program, for me, offer fewer enticements. The Ravel Concerto in G, recorded under studio conditions in 1958, is in quite acceptable stereo even if Praga Digitals’ DSD remastering fails to uncover an early gem of the sound engineer’s art along the lines of those remastered RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence recordings. Michelangeli’s performance is a good one, but the pianist is somewhat stiff in the first movement, as if not entirely comfortable with Ravel’s jazz inflections here. The second movement is lovely, though, but I find the Philharmonia Orchestra not really up to snuff on this occasion, at least. Some of the woodwind solos sound particularly sour, and the playing under conductor Ettore Gracis has little real excitement to it.
On points, though, this is a good—certainly not great—performance; however, I find Michelangeli’s Children’s Corner somewhat tense, lacking in charm. Again, the hard, ungrateful live recording, set down in Prague in 1960, doesn’t help.
For fans of Michelangeli and for those who want the opportunity to hear a little-recorded legend of the piano, this release is certainly of value. For me, however, it lacks the treasurability of the Richter recording despite the fact that the Russian pianist left a much larger recorded legacy.