Richter's crouching ovation for Weissenberg

'Weissenberg (who says he's a fervent admirer of mine) has completed a colossal undertaking and one can only congratulate him on it. His work bears all the hallmarks of honesty, conscientiousness and the love that he feels for his work. If only his fingers didn't press ahead so much at the end of the fast variations, as this really spoils Bach's music. But I actually believe it does not come easily to him'.
Sviatoslav Richter writes in 1972 of the first recording of the Goldberg Variations by the sadly departed Alexis Weissenberg , who is seen above. The quote comes from Sviatoslav Richter - Notebooks and Conversations edited by Bruno Monsaingeon. The book also provides the information that Richter auditioned Weissenberg's Bach in his car while driving from Munich to Vienna, presumably listening to an audio cassette. Now I would trust Richter's ears anytime, but his evaluation does raise the question of what is the minimum audio quality level needed to make valid artistic judgements? A propos two true stories from my days at the sharp end of the record industry are relevant. While I was at EMI a senior classical executive on whose watch many great recordings were made complained repeatedly of distortion on white label (test) pressings of new releases. These were the days of vinyl LPs so a technician from Abbey Road was sent to the executive's house to check his audio system. When he arrived he found the tone arm of the record deck weighed down with a copious amount of plasticine "to prevent it jumping from the groove". At another time a prominent critic wrote unfavourably of the sound of EMI releases. Again a technician was despatched to check the reference audio system. In the critic's house one stereo speaker was in his study and one in the hallway "so I can listen while moving aroung the house". No flaky audio systems involved when Richter tells us in his Notebooks and Conversations that the Handel Keyboard Suites, which he and Andrei Gavrilov recorded for EMI, are "veritable miracles".

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Nathan Shirley said…
Very interesting article, with some great anecdotes. But to be fair, Richter was referring to tempo/rhythm issues, not sound quality, tone, etc. So the lowly cassette tape shouldn't have been an issue. Having said that, I personally love Weissenberg's Bach (and Richter's too).

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