BEETHOVEN: “APPASSIONATA” & “FUNERAL MARCH” SONATAS
RICHTER BEETHOVEN: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 & SONATA NO. 22
CHARLES MUNCH/BOSTON SYMPHONY
JVC XRCD24 24-bit Super Analog CD
(JM-XR24017) JVC XRCD24 24-bit Super Analog CD (JM-XR24018)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor,
Op. 57 “Appassionata” – 23:40
Piano Concerto No.1 in C,
Op.15 – 36:59
1. Allegro assai – 10:42 1. Allegro Con Brio [Cadenza: Beethoven] – 16:23
2. Andante con moto – 5:56 2. Largo – 11:47
3. Allegro ma non troppo – 7:02 3. Rondo : Allegro scherzando – 8:43
Piano Sonata No.12 in A-flat, Op.26
“Funeral March” – 18:26 Piano Sonata No.22 in F, Op.54 – 10:55
4. Andante con variazioni – 7:05 4. In tempo d’un menuetto – 5:55
5. Scherzo: Allegro molto; Trio – 2.53 5. Allegretto – 4:55
6. Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe – 6:11
7. Allegro – 2:17
Total playing time – 42:20 Total playing time – 48:07
Continuing the incredible feat it accomplished with the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 XRCD24 release, Victor Company of Japan has put several more legendary performances on two “24 bit Super Analog” XRCD’s, namely Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 & Piano Sonata No. 21, and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 23 & 22, both by pianist Sviatoslav Richter, with Charles Munich and Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Concerto.
Richter had returned less and less to the studio since the late 60’s, playing music only impulsively when it was convenient to him and at locations to his liking. Born in 1915, Richter became fond of playing in more intimate and modest surroundings in his latter years, in places such as England’s Aldeburgh Festival; and the romantic French was fond of his traveling with his personal piano to small French towns and villas and holding concerts in the most unlikely circumstances. The maestro enjoyed a loyal following for his magnetism at the keyboard, and had long been proclaimed a self-taught genius since childhood. In 1937 when he was 22, without taking a required entry exam at the state-operated Moscow Conservatory, he was accepted singularly as a student by Heinrich Neuhaus, a legendary pianist himself and a faculty of the state-operated institution. The great Neuhaus was known to have said that, “I do not take pride in Sviatoslav Richter as a pupil of mine. The least I can do is take pride in having been chosen as his teacher.”
Indeed, Richter approached the piano like no other pianists. Armed with hands that could hit both the C and G keys at once, plus a gifted understanding of music, Richter was one of the most private great pianists, compared to publicity enjoyed by legends such as Horowitz, Kempff and Rubinstein. He had been known to miss a key or two during concerts and his reading of works were often more sentimentally scrupulous than others, but his “personal” version of Beethoven’s music, among others, had such intimacy and intensity, he continued to mesmerize audiences endlessly and succeeded in convincing everyone that his reading of whomever’s music it happened to be at the moment, be it Beethoven or whoever else, had to be authentic.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 & Piano Sonata No. 21
Here in the context of a concerto, Richter is less impulsive than usual with his piano and sounded distinctly less unpredictable, which gives the entire performance a welcomed smoothness that is, nonetheless, not devoid of the Richter signature of grandeur and individuality. Especially in the Largo 2nd Movement, moments abound in which listeners can still fully appreciate Richter’s dormant but irrepressible greatness.
In his hands, this Largo reveals itself as one of the most refreshing in earnestness among Beethoven’s concerto compositions ever, also prominently suggestive of levels of serenity in the composer’s more renowned, latter concertos. Richter’s aptly applied gentleness and lyricism throughout the performance renders the Largo with a poetic fluidity.
Then, the Rondo: Allegro scherzando 3rd Movement brings about the familiar Beethoven in his most glorious form. Unlike works from other composers, each of Beethoven’s concerto’s has an unmatched driving force in their 3rd Movements, and his No. 1 demonstrates this brilliantly.
If you tell me you don’t have time to listen to all 3 Movements, I would probably advise you to just listen to the 1st Movement for its originality, or the 2nd Movement for its poetic lyricism, or even just the last Movement for the signature energy and power that is Beethoven. But it wouldn’t make any difference, for any of the Movements would’ve given you enough motivation to devour the entire work in a single play anyway.
And since Charles Munich was such a competent and supportive symphonist, his Boston Symphony Orchestra, after having played alongside legend like Jascha Heifetz years before, sounded utterly at ease conversing with Richter’s piano. The partnership was simply contagious.
The coupling of the Piano Sonata No. 22 in the same disc is an odd marketing move; for one would expect a label to add something more popular to a Beethoven Concerto that is not the Emperor. Preceding the pivotal Appassionata, and composed immediately after the Waldstein, No. 22 is not only unfortunate in the lack of a title, it is summarily overlooked. For decades, pianists has customarily recorded the No. 21 Waldstein and jumped right over the No. 22 onto the No. 23, Appassionata.
But this Sonata is not without merits.
The Sonata’s respectively 6- and 5-minute long twin Movements might have reduced its own status among its siblings; but Richter is reminding us that there is nothing trivial about a Beethoven Sonata. The 5:55 minute-long, In tempo d’un menuetto 1st Movement has six distinct passages that can be dissected in the following:
Introduction theme (0-1:01)
2 rounds of temperament (1:02-2:00)
Variation of theme (2.01-3:18)
Another unrelenting temperament (3:19-3:39)
Condensed theme (3:40-5:08)
Final elegant statement (5:09-5:55)
Succinctly, after just a minute’s normal-day routine introduction, listeners are abruptly propelled into a second minute’s worth of high-octane outburst. After a few more rounds of short, soft passages interspersed by bursts of outcry, the music draws to an end in the issuance of a final elegant statement.
The Allegretto 2nd Movement is even shorter, at 4:55. Yet, in the space between the first second to the last 60, the piano under Richter transformed magically into an entire orchestra. Amidst the seemingly impossible feat Richter has managed, he shows us that he is always supremely in control of his faculty and sensibility, never losing grip of the paramount importance of unfolding the mind of Beethoven. 5 minutes pass like one.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 23 & 22
JVC’s pairing of Richter’s reading of Appassionata (No. 23, Op. 57) and Funeral March (No. 12, Op. 26) not only provided fresh contrasts in the differing moods and styles of the composer, it also bears witness to the level of excellence the Japan label can do in resurrecting old recordings.
Beethoven’s piano sonatas, with a total of 31 of them, are the most numerous among his compositions in symphonies, overtures, concertos and chamber works. The most popular of the composer’s piano sonatas is undoubtedly the Moonlight; but years after the completion of it, the German composer broke the mold that his Classical-period contemporaries so religiously adhered to with his Eroica Symphony and Appassionata Sonata, ushering in a new era of musical expression. There, Beethoven first demonstrated the next level in music-making with the illustrative emotions that the great Romantics were so illustrious of generations later.
In 1894, when composing the Appassionata, Beethoven was 22 years old and Chopin was just laid to rest. Romain Rolland, the late-19th century Beethoven biographer, reminded us of the composer’s pending deafness, and offered an insight into the composer’s heart and mind:
“The perfection of the Appassionata conceals a danger of a double kind. It is characterized by the
emprise of reason over the forces let loose. The tumultuous elements are purified, confined within
the strict forms of the classic discipline. These forms, indeed, are enlarged to admit of the entry of
a whole world of passions…”
Richter’s Appassionata shows no Rubinstein’s rather Chopinesque lyricism (RCA Red Seal 09026-63056-2), nor does it challenge Kempff’s authoritative, Germanic preeminence (DG 447 404-2, or BMG D111963). Yet, attentive listeners will recognize the musical vitality from Richter’s piano, the same way the world was set on its ears when the late Carlos Kleiber forged his highly personal but insurmountable Beethoven Fourth and Fifth symphonies.
There are moments in Appassionata’s 3rd Movement, Allegro ma non troppo, that Richter’s piano playing creates such heightened effect as if an entire orchestra was playing. In the hands of maestro Richter, the movement sounds sumptuously rich in tone, and vibrantly so in its unity. You would swear you’ve experienced something new once you’re graced with Richter’s music.
Instances abound during CD playing that I often yearn for some nonexistent, “secret” recordings of certain prominent artists playing their most personal music alone at home. Some other times when my stereo is loud and clear, I would imagine myself playing those music in a corner inside a big mansion. The likes of Richter and their force of music dazzles me.
The Funeral March is less intense in its pre-Appassionata mood, and yet glistening with the genesis of the famous sonata to follow, the Moonlight. Of the four Movements, the seven-minute long 1st Movement, Andante con variazioni, offers a narrative-like main theme that is instantly timeless. The variations to follow benefit from the highly original theme and the playing of variations is highly involving in Richter’s hands, who draws listeners easily to his methods.
The nearly 3-minute long Scherzo 2nd Movement prepares listeners for the funeral march movement to follow with its thrice-repeated dance-like melody and deceptive mindlessness. Then, the 6-minute long 3rd Movement, Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe, highly suggestive the composer’s Symphony No. 3 Eroica in its introduction but much more upbeat, allows Richter to flex his muscles as no one could. Imagine Beethoven writing a funeral march in his earlier days, before his Appassionata/Eroica years; this is your chance for a somewhat flamboyant Beethoven beautifully brought to life by Richter.
The 137-seconds-long finale, Allegro, is almost too modern in its jazz-like melody in the playful hands of Richter. No less impressive than the preceding funeral march, its compactness would certainly have prompted the audience of its days to demand encore.
This XRCD24 release is hot from the mold. Only 5 months have gone by from the time the recordings were being mastered into XRCD24 on March 27 to this day, and what a disc this is. For among the plentiful Richter CDs in the market and other Appassionata’s made by legendary pianists in the 60’s and 70’s, none will sound as clean and fresh as this JVC disc.
A custom-built, 3-channel analog playback machine was used to retrieve signals from the original, 1960 3-channel master tapes, before being sent through JVC’s latest XRCD processing technology dubbed 24 bit Super Analog, employing proprietary A/D, D/A converters and the most stringent disc manufacturing protocols in the industry.
The dynamics of these re-releases is such as if the recordings were made with modern day technology. JVC manages to eliminate all background noise from the old tapes without curtailing details, making for dramatic, unexpected entrance from the very second the discs start to spin, and these XRCD’s tonalities also make for a more lifelike presentation. From my familiarity with recordings made in the 60’s, the piano’s crisp and reverberating sound of these XRCD’s belies its origin from nearly half a century ago.
Coinciding with these two JVC XRCD24 releases, RCA Red Seal recently also issued a economy-priced single disc under the Classic Library Series that contains the same Concerto and Piano Sonatas No. 22 & 23 (RCA Red Seal BMG Classics 82876-59421-2). Interestingly, there is a small display on the RCA disc’s bottom cover that says “24 Super Bit Sound Solution 96 kilohertz”, which can only be read with a magnifying glass, really. The RCA disc’s booklet accredits a New York crew for the digital transfer and sound remastering but gives no date, whereas the two Japanese XRCD’s documented the date in addition to names of the Japanese crew. Since these are identical performances and even the American RCA disc is staking a 24-bit claim, it is likely the same master tapes went through the same initial mastering stages before being sent off to the two houses in opposite directions.
The music-loving public will be served just fine by buying the RCA disc, which is an outstanding value. But for the majority of DAGOGO’s target readers who are critical music listeners, the best in sound quality lies within the pits of the two JVC XRCD24 discs. The JVC XRCD24 discs have a higher level of dynamic-to-noise contrasts, sounding so pristine that the Boston symphony Hall’s ambience is more evident in the Piano Concerto, most noticeable in the Largo 2nd Movement’s pianissimo, more so than the RCA disc.
There are but two drawbacks to the XRCD releases. The first being the lingering electronic noise on the right channel being more audible than the American release occasionally. Although this artifact is only in the 1st Movement and does not impose itself intrusively, it remains audible during solo passages. My other grievance is with JVC USA for giving the world this top-sounding CD with the original Japanese booklet intact. I derive enjoyment from reading the accompanied booklet as well as from the music itself, and there bound to be like listeners who are even more insistent in a completely English package.
These discs represent the maximum level of fidelity today’s digital format can muster out of the old recordings, and the intended audience for this re-release is unmistakably the classical/Richter fan with a top-flight CD system. The exquisite paperboard packaging conveys timelessness over the standard jewel cases, and the extraordinary touch of the paper’s spotless texture makes it a joy to handle.
I’ll be playing this Appassionata more than any other labels’ not only because it is Richter, but also because it is the best sounding of them all; and by the time you read these words, you should have become a classical fan also, if not one of Richter as well.
In producing these XRCD’s, JVC put the re-release through extraordinary processes at both the studio and pressing plant, and if any music label can lay claim to being the most earnest, visionary purveyor of bringing the art of music preservation to the highest level, JVC with its XRCD24 offerings can.
47 Laboratory 4704 PiTracer CD transport with two Power Humpties
Audio Note DAC 5 Special (upgraded)
Harmonix Reimyo CAT-777 preamplifier
Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 300B power amplifier
Audio Note AN-E SEC Silver speakers
Via Audio Note Sogon digital cable, Sogon interconnects, AN-Vx interconnects,
Sogon speaker cable, Harmonix Reimyo Studio Master AC cords.
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