Wandering Minstrel

Richter the Enigma

a film by Bruno Monsaingeon
NVC Arts, 154 minutes, $29.95 (VHS)

Carnegie Hall Recital

RCA Red Seal
RCA Red Seal, two CDs, $31.98


Sviatoslav Richter died on August 1, 1997, at the age of eighty-two, the most mercurial and impressive of the Soviet pianists to come to prominence in the West. His playing could be by turns profound, perverse, elegant, heavy-handed, unforgettable, and unlovable. He was in various ways paradoxical. He cultivated a reputation as some-one unconcerned with worldly af-fairs, allergic to studio recordings, with their lack of spontaneity (he preferred microphones hidden in strategically placed potted plants during his concerts); he was repelled by the music industry, its publicity machinery, its managers and backers and critics, and its obligations to plan three or four years in advance. He preferred the persona of the wandering minstrel, playing on the spur of the moment wherever he happened to be for whoever happened to show up. In later years, he canceled innumerable dates and instead, when his health was good, traveled with a map and an entourage that included his own Yamaha pianos and tuners. He would stick pins in the map at places he wished to see or whose names intrigued him and then find halls in which to play there. “I may play in a theater or chapel or in a school playground at Roanne, Montluçon, or in some remote corner of Provence,” he told the Canadian film director Bruno Monsaingeon. “All that matters is that people come not out of snobbery but to listen to the music.”

He hated flying. Once, facing the prospect of a Japanese tour, he proposed that doctors put him to sleep in his hotel in Paris so that he could be taken by ambulance to the airport and awakened after he arrived at his hotel in Tokyo. The doctors declined. On another occasion, when he was seventy-one, rather than fly all the way to Japan, he chose to drive from Moscow to Vladivostok and back, this time without his Yamaha team, on a four-month excursion through remotest Siberia; he played ninety-one concerts at whatever places he came upon en route.

But through the early 1960s he had already appeared so frequently on recordings, in taped concerts, and even on television, that Glenn Gould, who thought the world of Richter as a musician, criticized him for betraying his talent. And Richter’s vast recorded legacy does seem strangely careless for such a great artist; being self-critical to the point of self-loathing, Richter was the first to admit this, even though it wasn’t always his fault. Discs were released with the claim that they had been authorized by him, but in fact they had been made surreptitiously and he had never listened to them. “Philips’s undertaking,” he wrote about one such collection in his private notebooks, “is more than a dubious exercise—it’s a disgrace.”

His repertoire was enormous. He played Schubert and Haydn sonatas before they were commonly performed by pianists in Russia, where they were regarded as dull and quaint. Oddly, he elected not to play major works in the literature like the Fourth and Fifth Piano…

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