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Sviatoslav Richter is universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, renowned for his virtuoso technique and the depth of his interpretations. He was born in Zhitomir, Russia, in 1915 but grew up in Odessa. Unusually, he was largely self-taught, although his organist father provided him with a basic education in music. He started to work at the Odessa Conservatory where he accompanied the opera rehearsals. He gave his first recital in 1934 at the engineer club of Odessa but did not formally study piano until three years later, when he enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory. He studied with Heinrich Neuhaus who also taught Emil Gilels, and who claimed Richter to be ‘the genius pupil, for whom he had been waiting all his life’. In 1945 he won the USSR Music Competition and the Stalin Prize in 1949, which led to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe and China, but he did not appear in the West until he performed in Finland in May 1960. Appearances in Chicago and New York followed later that year and he then gave concerts in Italy, Germany, France and Britain, confirming his reputation for having a mystic communication with the music he played, and a technique that seemed almost super-human. Richter disliked recording in the studio and some of his finest recordings originate from live performances at concerts.
The first CD begins with a live recording from the 1979 Tours Festival of Handel’s Keyboard Suite No.5 in E, whose finale is known as ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith. After this comes another live recording, this time it is a delightful short piece by Mozart – Andante and Allegretto in C for violin and piano, believed to be intended as movements of an unfinished sonata – in which Richter is joined by the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan, whose career was tragically cut short by cancer. Staying with Mozart, Richter next performs the opening movement of the Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat K482, followed by the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor known as ‘The Tempest’. This was the first recording that the Soviet authorities allowed Richter to make in the West. Next we hear two works by Schumann: the finale from Faschingsschwank aus Wien (‘Carnival Joke from Vienna’) and the whole of his Piano Concerto in A minor, which has been described as ‘one of the most brilliant jewels in the diadem of Romantic piano literature.’
CD 2 begins with another great masterwork for piano from the Romantic period: Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, which is followed by the delightful Theme and Variations from Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, in which Richter is joined by the double bass player Georg Hörtnagel and members of the Borodin Quartet. Next we hear the romantic third movement of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto followed in complete contrast by the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.5. In 1940, while still a student, Richter had given the world premiere of the Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a composer with whose works Richter was ever after associated. The programme ends with a complete performance of one of the most popular concertos in the entire piano repertoire: Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor.
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