Liszt, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, Sonata in B minor, performed by Sviatoslav Richter and (in the concertos) the London Symphony, Kiril Kondrashin conducting (Philips 446 200).
This mid-priced CD collects three of Richter's greatest performances. The concertos were recorded in London in 1961, immediately after Richter and Kondrashin had performed them in Royal Festival Hall. At the time, these performances were hailed as the finest ever recorded, and the passage of 34 years (and dozens of other performances) has done nothing to alter that opinion.
Richter always enjoyed a close rapport with Kondrashin, and these performances are at once the most thunderous and the most exquisitely lyrical ever recorded. The recorded sound remains astonishingly vivid. The live, unedited performance of the Liszt Sonata is the same one issued last year in Philips' 19-CD Richter edition. It was then mistakenly listed as having been recorded in 1988, but the performance is almost certainly the one Richter gave at the 1966 Aldeburgh Festival. It is a pity that Richter, who first performed the sonata in the mid-1940s and performed it throughout his career, never made a studio version. But this performance, in acceptably good sound, is astonishing. Richter's enormous hands make child's play of the composer's huge stretches and of exhausting octave passages. There is, moreover, a command of the music's architecture that makes this performance certainly the most searching and perhaps the most exciting ever recorded.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3, Peter Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by Martha Argerich and (in the Rachmaninoff) the Berlin Radio Symphony, Riccardo Chailly conducting, and (in the Tchaikovsky) the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin conducting (Philips 446 673)
Even at full price, this disc is as great a bargain as the Richter. The performance of the Tchaikovsky was recorded live in 1980, and its 32-minute length, occupying a single CD (at full price), has been available for years. It represents Argerich at her most passionately volcanic and is a very different performance from the more classically proportioned version she recorded a few years earlier in London (for Deutsche Grammophon) with her former husband, Charles Dutoit.
For sheer excitement, this performance is rivaled only by the two World War II versions Vladimir Horowitz recorded with Arturo Toscanini. The Rachmaninoff, however, is more exciting still. This 1982 live, unedited performance is the same one that has been circulating as a pirate on Artists Live Recordings for about a decade. It was one of the best-selling pirates ever made, surpassing in sales (according to some record-store managers) commercial recordings of the piece. After much wheedling and pleading, Philips finally got the reclusive Argerich to agree to its commercial release.
Why the pianist played this piece for only about two seasons and then dropped it from her repertory remains a mystery. Many aficionados -- including the late Horowitz -- regard this performance as the finest ever. Certainly, it is the most exciting. Like the composer himself, Argerich does not dawdle over details in a sentimental manner, playing the remarkable, but simple, opening "straight" and continuing to let the music speak for itself.
And what speaking! Argerich's first movement cadenza -- she plays the shorter one preferred by both the composer and Horowitz -- is dazzling and fearless. Her slow movement is warm without being schmaltzy and her final movement explodes from the starting block and builds to unbelievable tension. The climax, shattering in its force, so completely spends the music that the listener is left exhausted and limp in delight.
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear Martha Argerich playing the last movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.