Well, of course my narrow rating of Richter’s prime is based on extensive listening. I feel that in the 1940s his playing was perfect, based on the few examples we have. But there’s not enough there to call it a prime. In the 50s, he was at his physical peak, and he played as fast and as loud as anyone, but there was a nervous energy that overwhelmed much of his 1950s work - except the Sofia recital, and a few other examples. This carries through the New york debut, and then it seems like late 1960 and 1961 was a turning point.
His stressful US debut behind him, this is about the time of his London debut - London was a city he came to love, and he returned many times. The 1961 through 1967 period is FILLED with incredible recordings and concerts: The studio Schumann Fantasy, the Dvorak Concerto with Kondrashin, The Liszt Concertos, The Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Rostropovich, those lovely Bach Preludes and Fugues on DG, Beethoven Concertos 1 & 3 with Kondrashin, Brahms 2 with Rossi (my favourite rec), the DG Chopin Ballade 4, the DG Scriabin 5th. (1963) The Leipzig Beethoven recital, Schubert Wanderer Studio rec, Faschingsschwank / Papillons Studio recs, incredible live accounts of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, great Schubert concerts in 1964, the US concerts of 1965 where he was nearly at his peak, The Liszt Sonata, Live Chopin Scherzos, Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Variations Serieuses, Richter’s best Mozart playing, Miroirs + Valses Nobles, Schubert Duets with Britten, and of course, 67 has my favourite live Wanderer.
I could go on forever. But my main point is that the 1950s playing… larger than life, though it was, is largely lacking in that calm, beautiful tone that the 1960s is so rich with. And then there’s the 1970s… well there are still great recordings here and there, but not nearly with the same regularity as in the 60s. So, if I were to be less specific, I’d say Richter was at or near the top of his game from 1944 (earliest recorded Richter) through 1978. There are plenty of great recordings after 1980, but there are also many that are not up to par.
As for Horowitz, I’m mostly thinking of those wonderful CBS recordings. The Live Schumann Fantasy, The 1968 Carnegie Hall TV Broadcast, the Scarlatti Sonatas, etc etc. I don’t know a lot about the 40s and 50s period, and there seem to not be very many recordings from then, so I can’t really say. I know I’ve never enjoyed the Prokofiev 7, nor do I find the Barber sonata to be particularly impressive. I’ll grant you that the 40s and 50s Liszt stuff is stunning. I probably just need to do more listening.
With Rachmaninoff, my three favourite recordings are from 1924 (the Rach 2), 1929 (The Carnaval) and 1930 (the Chopin Sonata). But you’re absolutely right, the 1930s and 40s stuff certainly isn’t any less impressive. I guess just reading about the neuralgia he suffered through as he got older, I assumed his playing became less consistent as he aged, though his recordings don’t show this.