LISZT: Liebesträume Nos. 2 & 3. Valses oubliées Nos. 1-3. Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies. Concerto for Piano No. 2 in A. Funérailles.
Hungarian State Orchestra/János Ferencsik; Sviatoslav Richter.
West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6043 (MONO) TT: 79:47.


The butterfly and the bear. This CD focuses on Richter, rather than on Liszt. The excellent liner notes by Kevin Bazzana give a deep appreciation of Richter as artist. If you know little about Richter (some may know little more than the name and an album or two), you'll find the disc an excellent place to begin.

The very first classical recording I bought with my own money was Richter's Rachmaninoff Second with Sanderling. A junior-high classical buddy and piano star of my neighborhood went with me to the record store (remember those?). I picked up the album and kept turning it over, trying to commit to the buy. After all, this was my money. "Do you think this is any good?" I asked. "I think you'll like it," my friend replied. Even on my crappy little Victrola, Richter overwhelmed me, but I can't say I became a fan, since at the start of my musical self-education composers interested me more than performers. Nevertheless, Richter immediately went into my "reliable" column -- in this case meaning that I could count on the performer to knock my pre- and teen-age socks off.

Richter had become a legend before I encountered him, and as time went on, even for me, a certain otherworldliness clung to him. Part of this arose from his eccentricities, beyond the limits of crazy of almost any other pianist but Glenn Gould. After a certain point, he refused to tour North America and turned down millions in fees because he felt uncomfortable there. Not only would he cancel at a moment's notice, he would put on concerts that day on a whim, hiring the hall himself and not bothering who or how many might show up, just because he felt like playing. Like Eugene Istomin, he loved playing small, out-of-the-way towns rather than large venues in cosmopolitan centers. Despite his mountain of recordings, he hated the studio, most of his work having been recorded live. For Richter (and I don't think this eccentric, except in terms of a modern career), a spiritual communicative thread passed from performer to live audience and informed the music. For a man with such an honored reputation, Richter cared very little about either reputation or career. Above all, he liked to play and to reflect as perfectly as he could the composer's thoughts. Furthermore, he had no notion of a perfect interpretation and was far more generous in his appreciation of his colleagues than of himself.

When most of us recall Richter's playing, we get notions of his huge hands, slab-like presence at the keyboard, and massive power, sometimes even brutality. Sure, the disc contains such moments, but what struck me this time around was the delicacy of much of it. Liszt often invites coarseness and flash. Richter doesn't shy from either where the music calls for it, but he also does the important work of listening to the music's demands.

This begins immediately with two of the Liebesträume. Most pianists tend to wallow in them. Richter gives the pieces a steam-cleaning to remove the goo. This results in something not dry, but unaffectedly simple and fresh. Who knew Liszt could express that? The Valses oubliées continue this approach, although they differ psychologically. Richter treats the first like gossamer. The second begins with a herk and a jerk, as if the music, momentarily confused, must decide where it will go. The third initially evokes tiny bells and fireflies before it moves into a suaver strain. Note that I haven't talked about Richter's interpretive decisions. The composer is everything here; the pianist has magically disappeared.

The Mephisto Waltz No. 1 refers to Lenau's Faust, rather than Goethe's. A tone poem for piano, it uses the scene in a village inn when Mephistopheles's violin playing (remember "The Devil Came Down to Georgia?") provokes a frenzied dance. Frenzy, of course, is relative, and post-Rite of Spring, some may find the orgy a little tame. However, you don't need to know the plot to enjoy the piece, for me the test of a truly successful programmatic work, and Liszt stuffs the score full of interesting surprises. I once wrote that it opens with "a remarkable passage of consecutive fifths – Mephisto warming up on the violin's open strings – and you realize immediately that somehow the instrument has grown an extra set of strings." Although Liszt may call what follows a waltz, it moves much faster, more like a tarantella. The contrasting section shows Faust sighing and casting longing looks at Marguerite. Most of the successful performances of this piece I've heard -- like Barbara Nissman's outstanding one now on the Three Orange label's 3OR-11, (Dramatic Visions, available at www.threeorangesrecordings.com) -- have resulted from meticulous planning. Richter seems to make it up as he goes along, more enacting a scene than playing the piano. One can almost see the characters in the inn. This account rages in the quick sections and succumbs to longueurs in the contrasts. At times Richter takes the piece as fast as I've ever heard it (if not faster), indeed faster than I thought possible. Sure, he may hit an occasional clam, but the fierceness of the playing sweeps critical bugaboos aside. When listeners talk of Richter as a "force of nature," they mean tracks like this. I can find almost no calculation in it.

Despite its relatively high critical reputation from music critics (one of the few works by this composer they don't condescend to), Liszt's second piano concerto has always bored me into near-coma. Different pianists, including Richter, have made no difference. I've come to realize the concerto's simply not vulgar enough for me. I much prefer the first, which despite its looser craft and moments of kitsch at least flows with real blood. My talking about Richter's performance of a work I just don't connect with strikes me as pointless.

At the concerto's antipodes stands the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies, probably a product of Liszt's barnstorming days. It focuses its near-unrelenting gaze firmly on the virtuoso soloist, who plays darn close to all the time. One of Liszt's "loose, baggy monsters," it retails one tune after another, an over-the-top piece which makes Liszt so much fun. The pianist imitates the tea-room gypsy fiddle and especially the cimbalom. Richter commits to its exotic pictorialism and athleticism and even its goofiness. There's enough musical frill and embroidery to knit a sweater, but it undoubtedly wins a listener over with its sheer enthusiasm.

Funérailles counts as my favorite item on the program. I've always felt pianists sentenced to hard labor just to keep it together. It seems to have so few obvious links from one section to another, and while a failed performance falls apart, a good one convinces you of its inner coherence. I happen to admire Horowitz in general, but his account just goes on and on. Richter's is full of subtle contrast as well as bold color. The opening tolling of the funeral bells immediately grips. The quick-march section with its rapid bass octaves and trumpet calls thrills like drums, and Richter puts in a superb crescendo. You think he'll run out of dynamic room, but it turns out he has plenty. The decrescendo is just as stunning. However, Richter's slow, quiet sections really make the work for me and turn it into something more than a pièce de salon. Richter transforms them into studies of noble grief.

The solo performances, all live, come from 1958 concerts given in Moscow and Budapest. I would describe the sound throughout as "Soviet" -- drab, colorless, and harsh as a Russian winter. WHRA have minimized the hiss and scratches, and they even manage to bring out the colors in Richter's playing. The orchestral performances, also live, come from the same 1961 Budapest concert, which means the Richter played both the Fantasia and the Concerto No. 2 that evening. Wow. The Hungarian State Orchestra, however, never rises even to routine. They play out of tune and ragged. Kevin Bazzana points out in his liner notes that the piano is also out of tune (the pianist notoriously never chose his pianos for concert). Except for Richter, it sounds like a performance at the local Legion hall. Richter makes up for everything, however. In all, a fascinating portrait of the Bear.

S.G.S. (March 2014)