Sviatoslav Richter is the last colossus. He is perhaps the greatest pianist of the 20th century, rivaled in reputation only by the intellectually less interesting and musically somewhat meretricious Vladimir Horowitz.
Richter's repertory is the biggest in the history of his instrument, and in much of it -- Schubert, Schumann, 19th- and 20th-century Russian composers, Debussy and Ravel -- he has reigned supreme. As pianist Arthur Rubinstein once remarked, "Richter is the best musician among us and we all know it."
As his career approaches its end, the 81-year-old Richter continues to be honored by huge retrospective sets of his "recordings." One puts the latter in quotation marks because Richter rarely visited the studios after the early 1960s and not at all after the late 1970s. Much of his legacy will be live recordings -- as is entirely the case in the recent "Richter in Prague" collection (Praga, distributed by Harmonia Mundi, CMX,354001.15), partly the case in Melodiya's new "Richter Edition" from BMG (74321 29460), and almost entirely true of last year's much-talked-about 21-CD salute to the pianist from Philips Records.
Fascinating as the Philips set was, these new collections are superior. Too many of the performances Philips released represented only Richter in his later years, when his probing and imaginative musicianship did not always compensate for a technical decline caused not only by age but also by the onset, in the late 1970s, of heart disease.
BMG's mid-priced (about $100 in most stores), 10-CD Melodiya set should be snapped up by anyone interested in owning never-to-be-equaled performances of such standard repertory as Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata as well as of such far-off-the-beaten-path pieces as the Glazunov Concerto No. 1, the Rimsky-Korsakov Concerto and Miaskovsky's Sonata No. 3. Most of the Melodiya performances -- some from the studio and others from live concerts -- date from the late '40s through the early '50s, when the pianist was at his absolute peak.
The mid-priced (about $130), 15-CD Praga set requires more discretion, especially because the CDs can be bought individually. The material comes from the pianist's regular visits to Prague between 1954 and 1988, and a few of the later performances do not represent Richter at his best.
Older listeners will recall many items in the Melodiya set from LP issues 30 years ago on the Monitor, MK and Artia labels. It's astonishing to realize how many of Richter's performances established the importance of currently taken-for-granted pieces by Schubert and Schumann.
It may have been Artur Schnabel who introduced Schubert's sonatas, but Richter brought them into the repertory. Schnabel had made the slow movement of Schubert's Sonata in D (D.850) compelling, for example, but he had left the long opening movement a muddle. Richter made its repeated chords explode with such energy that younger pianists everywhere wanted to play it.
Richter's example has been intimidating as well as influential: Every pianist performs Beethoven's "Appassionata" in the shadow of Richter's -- a performance in which the turbulent finale dances fiendishly and leaps fearlessly over the coda's precipice. (Melodiya features a live "Appassionata" in Moscow in 1960, and the Praga label one from Prague in 1959).
But Richter cannot be imitated. For one thing, there is the global intelligence, logic and conviction that can make music as abstract as Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" and "Hammerklavier" Sonata (Praga) actually sound compelling.
Then there's his intuition. The "Humoresque" may be Robert Schumann's most ambitious work for piano. But until Richter's 1957 recording (reissued in the Melodiya collection), it was considered all but unplayable. In this work, Schumann let his tendency to structure purely by lyric impulse have its head, and the "Humoresque" was considered too full of temperamental contrast to be coherent.
But Richter's poetic insight and empathetic identification with Schumann fully encompassed the music's drama and capriciousness, establishing the position of the "Humoresque" in the concert hall and on records.
Even though many recorded versions are now available, Richter's remains the best. His version shows the most complete mastery of the notes -- technical command so complete that it left the pianist free to concentrate on whatever his brain, heart or fingers desired.
Richter was born to play the piano. His huge hand-span easily allows him to take a twelfth, and his enormously thick, padded fingers make it possible for him to coax sounds from the instrument -- just sample Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes" or Ravel's "Miroirs" on Praga -- that other pianists can only dream about, if indeed such Richteresque flights of imagination are within their compass.
Those enormous hands occasionally produce problems for the pianist in Mozart and Chopin, whose music calls for intricacy and delicacy better suited to smaller, slimmer hands. But those weaknesses -- the only ones in more than 40 hours of music by 29 composers on the 25 CDs in these two boxes -- are the exceptions that prove the rule:
Only Richter was able to play so many composers with such unmatched imagination, poetic insight, power and structural comprehension.
Hear the music
To hear Sviatoslav Richter perform the last movement of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6190. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.