Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Sviatoslav Richter / Vaclav Talich

Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Bach: Piano Concertos

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Sviatoslav Richter has been judged by many listeners and critics to have been the greatest pianist of the second half of the 20th century, and his recordings are highly valued by collectors. The question with any new Richter reissue is how it compares with other performances of the same works and with other releases of the same recordings. In the case of this Supraphon reissue, it is a question of how these 1954 recordings of the first piano concertos of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Bach, made with Czech conductors and orchestras, compare with Richter's other recordings of the same works.

Richter recorded Tchaikovsky's first concerto in 1958 with Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, and in 1962 with Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Symphony. This 1954 recording has a freshness that the other two cannot match. Richter gives his virtuosity free rein, and the results are incredibly exciting. On the other hand, Richter benefits greatly in the 1958 recording from having the iron-handed Mravinsky on the podium. Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic too willingly defer to Richter, and Mravinsky does a better job of holding soloist and orchestra together. Karajan also holds things together, except that Richter unfortunately seems at times to be struggling against the conductor's tight-fisted control. Of the three versions, this reissue would rank second.

Richter recorded the Prokofiev first concerto only one other time, in 1952 with Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Youth Symphony. As great as that performance is (and Richter did seem more comfortable with Russian forces behind him), this one is better. His virtuosity is just as flashy, but perhaps more substantive in the work's outer sections, while the central Andante comes off as more deeply felt. Ancerl's Prague Symphony plays rings around Kondrashin's youth orchestra, making this reissue the clear winner.

Richter only made one other recording of the Bach first concerto, with Kurt Sanderling directing the USSR State Symphony in 1955. Here, the contest could go either way. Richter is equally good in both, but his performances are very different: in the 1954 version, he seems more driven, even more demonic, while in 1955 he seems more masterful and more in control. The conductors and orchestras do an equally fine job of accompanying him, with Talich and the Czech Philharmonic playing with Richter, and Sanderling and the Moscow orchestra following him. Both ways work, and a choice would come down to a listener's individual taste.

In terms of sound quality, all the recordings, with the exception of the Tchaikovsky with Karajan, will be a trial. In this remastering, the sound could generously be described as honest and direct and less generously as dull and opaque. It's possible to hear most but not all of what Richter is doing, and some but not most of what the orchestras are doing. Still, these are three of the greatest performances of these pieces ever recorded, and anyone sufficiently devoted to either the music or the pianist should by all means hear them.

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