14 JULY 1961, Page 15



By DAVID CAIRNS THE Sviatoslav Richter whom we have heard in the flesh this week (for the first time in England) has inevitably been a less Promethean figure than the legend created by years of mystery and expectation, some re- markable gramophone records, and the publicity industry of several con- tinents labouring to- gether to discover the inspired title of 'greatest Pianist of the century.' On the evidence of his first two recitals in the Festival Hall, Richter is not 'better' than Serkin, Rubinstein, Gilels or Michelangeli (the question is, rather, is he as good?); let alone than the great players of the recent past, to go back no further: Schnabel, Cortot, Lipatti, Rachmaninov. The programme notes of these concerts include an article by Richter's teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire, Professor Neuhaus, to the effect that Richter heralds a new epoch in piano-playing: before, there were the virtuosos; now, with him virtuoso technique, though possessed to the full, has a subsidiary function'; 'the most important thing in music for him is to reveal its poetic philoso- Phical essence.' Henee the severe, simple style . of his performance.' He has a" unique capacity to Penetrate the deepest mysteries of music.' This, with respect, is nonsense. On Monday.,, in Chopitfs E major Etude, op. 10, his style was anything but severe and simple; he pulled the time about unconscionably. In the third Ballade the poetic essence of the music was just what I thought his neat but curiously negative perforrn- anee failed to reveal. In the Barcarolle, the greatest music he has played at these concerts, he did not 'come up to Lipatti's little finger; we hear . 4 lot about Richter's rhythm, but strong rhythmic. 'articulation was what was missing from the big tune at the climax of the piece, which in cmIsequence lost force and deprived the final section (among the supreme passages in Chopin) ef• its philosophical poetic essence or, as one nlight say, its effect. Without any doubt Richter is a master pianist. His technical control at high speed is formidable—but not more so than Michelangeli's. His part plaYing is of emplary lucidity—but so is Rosalyn Tureck's. f_lls soft tones are subtle and exquisitely varied— wit Rubinstein's are at least as remarkable. The Festival Hall, of course, is a far from satisfactory place for piano recitals, and Richter Probably loses more in it than most pianists. Not that the scale of his performances is small, for ail that he cultivates more than most the lowest e_rid of the dynamic scale, the point where sound drrifts into silence; but he seems to disdain cornmon act of communication, he plays as i!c to himself, almost like a man in a waking actrearn. His art demands, by implication, that the _ odience come more than half-way towards it; h.ut it has often been acoustically impossible to cl° so, or even to tell whether he is indeed pene- trating the deepest mysteries or whether he is not simply off colour, and communicating neither with the audience nor with the music. At such times you wish you could be just overhearing his thoughts, listening to him alone, in a room. Perhaps he is a pianist at his truly greatest only on gramophone records. But I have a feeling that we have not been hearing the best of him. Even his much-praised Debussy Preludes, in spite of all their marvellous moments—the extra- ordinary dead sound of the final chord of Des pas sur .1a neige, the guitar tone in La serenade interrompue—seemed to me too withdrawn and enclosed to be, in those surroundings, entirely satisfying. It was only in the final encores, and most of all in a wonderfully played Rachman- in ov prelude (worth, I thought, a great deal of the Prokofiev we heard on Saturday), that an artist in touch with his environment came out of the shell. One glimpsed suddenly a different Richter, a willing giant, a pianist who played out eagerly, six encores in quick succession, for the excite- ment of sharing with the multitude. He remains a mysterious figure.

There is no doubt where one is with ,Ros- tropovich. It is not a question of agreeing with everything he does; his performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in London last Sunday, though continuously absorbing and full of memorable things, struck me as too free for a work which already arriply supplied with changes of tempo and mood. But he plays with a glorious frank- ness and openheartedness which there is no resisting and which communicates, through a technique as complete as Richter's, a simple unimpeded love of music to all around him. His sonata recital with Benjamin Britten at the Alde- burgh Festival on Saturday was a rare experience of oneness. From the first bars of Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata to the last of the noble Bach aria in which Peter Pears joined them, they played like twin souls. The ,focus of the pro- gramme was the first performance of a vivacious, and no doubt deceptively simple, cello sonata dedicated by Britten to Rostropovich. The material of this admirable work is largely derived, with great ingenuity, from the tiny germ of two notes making an interval of a second (rising or falling). Each of its five movements seems to be pointing with delighted admiration to one or other facet of Rostropovich's prodigious art. The march-like fourth movement has the cello rumbling in rapid scales and sing- ing in soft harmonics, the Scherzo is a tour de force of pizzicato, the finale a moto perpetuo of brilliantly spiky staccato rhythm. The grave Lento at the centre of the 'work (whose long crescendo and decrescendo, over cascading scales and tremolo in the piano part, is faintly reminiscent of The ceremony of innocence' in The Turn of the Screw) exploits double, treble and quadruple stopping. Only the first movement did not, to me, speak immediately at first hearing. But it is the absurdity of criticism that it expects a critic of a new work to elevate his fleeting impressions into solemn judgment. I am willing to have my mind changed about this movement at subsequent hearings, which there will surely be.