This is the great Sviatoslav Richter performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Though there are also recordings of the Soviet titan playing Pictures in Moscow in October 1951, in Prague in November 1956, in Budapest in February 1958, and again in Moscow in August 1958, as well as recordings from London in 1968 and from Naples in 1969, this live recording from Sofia, Bulgaria, on February 24, 1958, is the great Richter Pictures. Why? From a purely technical point of view, he played more right notes in the 1958 Moscow Pictures. Indeed, the Sofia Pictures is famous for its cascades of wrong notes in the climactic pages of "The Great Gate of Kiev." But the few wrong notes are immaterial in the face of the overwhelming rightness of Richter's performances. Despite the occasional splayed sonority, Richter's virtuosity is in fine form here, tearing through "The Hut on Hen's Legs" at an audacious tempo. Beyond the technique, however, there's Richter's interpretation, always bold in its dynamic range and heroic in its tone, but transformed here through who knows what agency or inspiration into a performance nearly super human in its radiant magnificence. Anyone who loves great piano playing will have to hear Richter's Sofia Pictures.
The question is: how shall you hear it? Heretofore, the preferred method has always been one or more of the many Philips releases. Some listeners favored the Japanese Philips LPs for their depth and warmth, others the later Philips CD remasterings for their light and clarity. But while this 2008 Urania reissue cannot boast better sound than the Philips issues -- indeed, the sound here is especially hard and harsh -- it does have something that none of them have: most of the first half of that evening's concert. And, no surprise, the first half is as good as the second half. Richter plays three works by Schubert -- two Opus 90 Impromptus and a Moments Musicaux -- one by Chopin -- the Étude in E major, Op. 10 -- and four by Liszt -- both Valse oubliée and two Études transcendental -- and each performance is simply astounding. The strength, the tone, the color, the line, the depth, the height, the sheer glory of Richter's playing has to be heard to be believed. Though any fans of the pianist will already have his Sofia Pictures, they should seriously consider checking out this Urania release to hear what they've been missing.
As is mandatory in any discussion of Richter's Sofia Pictures, mention must be made of the audience noise. That the sound is antique in the first place and cramped in the second place is one thing. This is an old live recording made in Bulgaria at the height of communist rule. But that many of the audience here sounds positively tubercular is quite another thing. Most of the audience has at least a cough and a substantial number seem to be at death's door. Forewarned is forearmed, but a high degree of forbearance will be necessary in "Cum mortuis in lingua mortua" if listeners are not fervently wishing that someone would nudge them over the threshold.