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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas; Choral Fantasy / Hans Richter-haaser

Release Date: 08/07/2012 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4804867   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 8 in c, “Pathétique,” op. 13; No. 14 in c?, “Moonlight,” op. 27/2; No. 21 in C, “Waldstein,”op. 53; No. 23 in f, “Appassionata,” op. 57; No. 24 in F?, op. 78; No. 28 in A, op. 101; Fantasia in c for piano, chorus and orchestra, op. 80 Read more Hans Richter-Haaser (pn); Karl Böhm, cond; Teresa Stich-Randall (sop); Judith Hellwig (sop); Hilde Rössel-Majdan (alt); Anton Dermota (ten); Erich Majkut (ten); Paul Schöffler (bs); Wiener St Op Ch; Wiener SO DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 4867 (2 CDs: 123:50)

Though well received in his day, the majority of classical music listeners have all but forgotten the Dresden-born pianist Hans Richter-Haaser since his death in 1980 at the age of 68. He was at the time rehearsing Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto when he collapsed suddenly; he died shortly thereafter of an embolism of the lung. It is a tragic story, and yet it is an even greater tragedy that he is so little known today. Reviews of a concert (in particular of a performance of the “Emperor” Concerto from 1965) mirror closely impressions that had formed in my mind about the artist upon listening to what turns out to be the complete Beethoven recordings he made for Philips: he was said to have a “luminous brilliance…without any romantic undertone,” to be “at once sensitive and eloquent” ( Frankfurter Rundschau ). He brought out a “strongly masculine element that underlies [the concerto]…without [it] being turned into a thunderstorm” ( Neue Presse).

Those are apt descriptions of his playing here. The compositions featured in this recital have a classical sense of restraint and balance, though they do not lack in power. The textures are clear and the figuration brilliant while the tempos are never over-indulgent—the first movement of the “Moonlight” proceeds at what must be the most perfect tempo I’ve ever heard. Never is it overly slow as in most recordings, but equally it is not so fast as to rob the piece of its reflective character. The opening movement of the “Pathétique” almost sounds like a monumental edifice being built in front of the listener: It is architecture in sound, yet never is the listener left cold. The second movement is both graceful and elegant: The accompanying chords are light and bouncy while the beautiful melody floats gently above them. The “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” sonatas are both powerful in character, have a wonderful sense of direction, and are marked in their dynamic contrasts.

Where the pianist fails for me is in certain moments of the later works: the second movement of op. 78 sounds too straightforward. It is almost square in effect. The later A-Major Sonata, op. 101, is lacking in its overall sense of monumentality. The slow movement sounds simply like an introduction, rather than a revelation, while the contrasting fugue is too slow and not nearly as energetic as one would hope. It should sound triumphant after what it follows. The Choral Fantasia is given a superb reading by both the pianist and orchestra; the textures are balanced and the subtleties of the score are carefully wrought. At first the simplicity of the interpretation bothered me a bit, but I was soon won over by the almost chamber-music feel that these artists brought to the work and the easy way that the pianist handles this less-than-easy score. Perhaps the biggest letdown of this performance, however, was at the entrance of the solo singers: While they are all superb in terms of intonation and quality of sound, they simply sing the poetic verse as though it were a drinking song. Here the grandiosity of Serkin’s approach (with Kubelík and the BRSO) simply beats them out. Even with these reservations this is a worthwhile tribute to a great artist—an artist who should be far better known than he is. May this release gain him that recognition.

FANFARE: Scott Noriega
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