Liszt • Concertos Nos.1 & 2

Sviatoslav Richter, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Kyril Kondrashin conducting
Philips/Speakers Corner PHS 900-000
Single LP
1961/2010

Music

Sound

by John Crossett | August 5, 2010

ant to fool with the minds of your audiophile buddies? Tell them you have a humble Philips pressing of Liszt piano concertos that sounds every bit as good as any Mercury Living Presence LP. Of course, they won’t believe you. Then play this Speakers Corner reissue, and after they’ve picked their jaws up off the floor, let them see the back of the album. The recording director was Wilma Cozart, the producer was Harold Lawrence, the recording engineer was Robert Fine, and the tape-to-disc transfer was done by George Piros. That’s the Mercury team doing its thing for Philips.

And, as if that weren’t enough, the recording was made on the sound tracks of 35mm film. This was quite the rage for a very brief period of time, as film offered advantages -- no pre-echo from print-through, greater fidelity due to extended frequency response -- over the magnetic tape of the day. Unfortunately, this was short lived, as magnetic tape suddenly made tremendous leaps forward in performance, and the 35mm craze died almost as quickly as it began.

There were few pianists better versed in Liszt than Sviatoslav Richter. One of the giants of the modern piano, Richter was a relative unknown until the 1960s, when he was finally allowed to perform for non-Russian audiences. Then his good looks and virtuosity (it’s said his hands were so large that he was capable of spanning a full octave between thumb and index finger) captured the minds, hearts and ears of audiences the world over.

The performances here are top-flight. Richter was a well-known perfectionist, taking five recording sessions to capture the two Liszt concertos. In Concerto No.1, he almost toys with the piano, yet when the score demands it, he turns on a dime and his playing nearly shouts in anger. To be able to perform over such a wide emotional range is a wonder. After a soft, slow introduction by the strings and woodwinds, Richter enters in Concerto No.2 with single notes played gently, then as the tempo increases so does his attack. You don’t have to be a pianist to appreciate how much energy and skill are required from these two concertos. Richter and conductor Kyril Kondrashin manage a near-perfect balance of tempo, neither pushing the music to breakneck speed nor slowing it down so much that it drags.

The sound is equally well balanced. The orchestra is arrayed behind Richter, and his piano sounds nothing short of tonally and dynamically realistic. The strings are at once serene and silky smooth, then jagged and harsh. The recording team captured it all beautifully, and the quiet pressing allows it to develop.

Speakers Corner deserves to be commended for giving us a second chance at hearing what a special day it was when the stars and planets aligned and these significant performances were recorded in such stellar sound.

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