The world is overpopulated with pianists possessing superior technical skills. Separating the complete artists from the mere mechanics becomes an increasingly vexing problem, exacerbated by the hype-laden packaging of pianists by recording companies and PR schlocksters.
The young pianist making a first recording will most likely be modishly good-looking and have a story (not necessarily musical) to tell. A recording or two, released simultaneously with some prestigious live gigs, precedes his or her disappearance; or at best, the pianist finds a lower level of visibility at which to operate, not having proven sufficiently distinctive--or fortunate--to survive the entrenched competition.
If any living pianist has been able to integrate the often jarring elements of image and achievement, technique and musicality, it is Sviatoslav Richter, the willful, reclusive 77-year-old Ukrainian who has been going his own way during the 60 years he's been appearing (and, as often, failing to appear) in public.
Richter's recent, sparse recording activity has been restricted to documentations of live performances, such as those captured by RCA Victor (60859) at the 1988 Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival: an hour of Brahms and Liszt that constitutes an exemplar of what separates the incomparable few from the faceless many.
The centerpiece of Richter's program is typically offbeat: the seldom heard, generally excoriated First Sonata, Opus 1, No. 1, of Brahms, in which the 20-year-old composer (keep in mind that nearly all we know, and cherish, of Brahms comes from much later in his life) struggles to find a personal voice and coherent style.
If any pianist can show where young Brahms was coming from and where he was headed, it is Richter, at once the most analytical and instinctive of performers.
He shows us in this mesmerizing interpretation, full of heroic flourishes and dark, whispered asides, young Brahms' indebtedness to the seemingly unapproachable Beethoven of the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, whose influences are uncomfortably, but by no means uninterestingly, interwoven with the pristine air of German folk song that remained a lifelong, nourishing preoccupation for the composer.
Richter's performance of Brahms' C-major Sonata exposes the score less as a sloppily endearing product of immaturity than as a variegated, complex product of an overly fertile imagination facing an overabundance of choices.
The remainder of the program is devoted to four works by Liszt, a lifelong Richter specialty and, for more than a few listeners, music they would hardly care to hear in another pianist's hands.
Richter has recorded "Harmonies du Soir" in similar live circumstances on at least three previous occasions, without quite the combination of intimacy and heroic sweep exhibited here. Notable too in this latest edition is that Richter's spectacular digital command does not preclude some big clinkers in the climactic crunches, which a lesser artist would have insisted on correcting in the studio before the recording's release, thereby quite likely ruining the stunning immediacy of the performance.
Richter's penchant for the worthwhile obscure is further exemplified in some earlier, equally fascinating examples of Liszt's combined thoughtfulness and blatancy: the 1851 Scherzo and March, at once backward looking, to Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and presaging some vague, alarming post-Wagnerian future.
Then too there's the bizarrerie of the familiar sixth "Consolation," executed with breathtaking dynamic subtlety, and a growlingly intense exposition of the brief, dramatically loaded Hungarian Rhapsody No. 17.
Admirably lifelike piano sound throughout, a wonderfully attentive, unintrusive audience and the sort of very sloppily edited and translated program notes that are becoming a too-common adjunct of RCA's releases.
Whether young Krystian Zimerman is capable of operating on the same exalted level as a Richter remains to be seen. That he is a highly accomplished and interesting artist, whose notions of the performer's duty extends to expanding the repertory for his instrument, is reinforced by his commissioning of original scores, notably the 1988 Piano Concerto of his Polish compatriot Witold Lutoslawski (Deutsche Grammophon 431 664).
The Concerto is a lively, ingratiating work, responsive to Zimerman's abilities as both colorist and slam-bang virtuoso. Its sound is more often subtly Debussy-like than pronouncedly rhythmical and percussive after the fashion of Bartok and Prokofiev, whose presences are also felt.
There is in fact too much of other composers in its four linked movements--much more than in the two additional, strictly orchestral components of DG's Lutoslawski program: the stronger if less superficially attractive "Chain 3" (1986), which embraces Lutoslawski's appealing device of allowing sections of the orchestra to ad-lib against a strictly written-out background, and the bright, dancey "Novelette" (1980).
The composer conducts the BBC Symphony in all three works.