A few housekeeping comments are in order concerning this 33-CD boxed set devoted to Sviatoslav Richter. The contents comprise nearly all of the pianist’s solo recordings previously released by Decca, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon. It falls slightly short of being a complete edition, because the following items are not included: 1) three solo Liszt pieces originally coupled with the Franck Piano Quintet on Philips; 2) the 1963 studio-recorded Beethoven Op. 14 No. 2, Op. 49 No. 1, and Op. 49 No. 2 sonatas; and 3) the contents of a limited edition bonus disc offered to those who bought Philips’ 21-CD Richter Authorized Edition as a boxed set.
Furthermore, the Authorized Edition’s incomplete and sometimes inaccurate recordingRead more date information is reproduced intact in the present set’s booklet. For example, Disc 14’s Chopin and Liszt selections are not “1988 digital recordings”. Chopin’s Op. 15 No. 1 Nocturne, Barcarolle, and selected Preludes were recorded in good old fashioned analogue during Richter’s November 19, 1966 Ferrara recital. The Liszt Sonata performance occurred two days later in Livorno, while an October 28, 1992 Nijmegen concert is the source for Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie. Similarly, Schubert’s B major Sonata D. 575 and G major Sonata D. 894, listed as “Germany, 12/79”, respectively stem from Richter’s June 12, 1966 Florence and March 20, 1989 London recitals (this information derives from Richter scholar Falk Schwartz’s comprehensive discography of the pianist).
However, it’s the music that mainly concerns us. Although Richter generally avoided being a "completeist," the collection’s range of works and composers is wide and substantial. Most of the material is live, given Richter’s lifelong aversion to the studio, including reference recordings such as the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, Liszt B minor Sonata, Weber D minor Sonata, Debussy Estampes, Scriabin Fifth, and an expansive Schumann C major Fantasy from 1979 that is more fluid and unified than the pianist’s frequently reissued 1961 EMI version. Yet the Schumann Waldszenen and Toccata, selected Rachmaninov Preludes, the Prokofiev Eighth Sonata, and six of the Shostakovich Preludes & Fugues remain classic studio recordings.
Spanning from 1956 to 1992, the collection also showcases Richter’s evolution from unpredictable middle-aged firebrand to austere keyboard veteran. Compare the suppler 1961 studio traversal of Haydn’s two-movement G minor Sonata No. 44 to its relatively charmless live 1986 counterpart, or the fleet, elegantly proportioned mid-1960s Beethoven Op. 26 and Op. 90 sonatas to the effortful bravura in the 1992 Op. 31 No. 3 and Op. 57 (“Appassionata”) sonatas, and you’ll hear what I mean. While the 1988 Brahms Paganini Variations from Tours frankly find Richter struggling, he could still summon sufficient finger power and dynamism in that same year’s live Chopin and Liszt Etude performances.
If Richter’s “plain-Jane” late-period Bach and Mozart interpretations are an acquired taste, one cannot deny the pianist’s rapt concentration and mesmerizing legato touch. I find the slow-motion harmonic tension emerging from the English Suite Sarabandes particularly riveting, much in the same way that the expansive 1979 Schumann Fantasy in C major scores over the more familiar yet less unified 1961 EMI studio version. In short, Richter fans who’ve missed out on these recordings before will find Decca’s modest price tempting.