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 Concertos of Bee-thoven, which seemed suited to him, because he said he liked how other pianists had already played them, a charming idea. His teacher Heinrich Neuhaus played Chopin’s E Minor Concerto so beautifully, Richter said, that he decided he wouldn’t touch it. Likewise, the Prokofiev Third Piano Sonata, even though Richter gave the premières of the Seventh and Ninth Sonatas, the latter one dedicated by the composer to him. He liked the Third Sonata enormously, he admitted, “but, having heard Gilels play it, I felt there was nothing I could add.” On the other hand, he championed out- of-the-ordinary works by Glazunov, Myaskovsky, and Dvorák (the Piano Concerto). He played an exceptional amount of recent and new music for a pianist of his stature, and not just by Russians like Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, but also by Hindemith, Max Reger, Berg, Webern, and Britten (with whom he memorably played four-hand music at the Aldeburgh Festival).
His performances of Schumann’s “Phantasie,” Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Scriabin’s Sixth Sonata, the Prokofiev Second and Sixth Sonatas, and the Liszt Sonata, among many others, are high points in the history of piano recordings—architecturally solid, technically unsurpassed (despite clinkers), sonically potent but essentially introspective, which is the combination that distinguishes Richter from other powerhouse virtuosi. There is always the sense of contained energy in his playing, fury held in check by intelligence and tonal nuance. Neuhaus taught him to prize tone above all: he called tone production “the substance of music” in his essay “Art of Piano Playing,” and talked about producing 100 different dynamic grades of sound on the piano, an elegant if arbitrary dream like Ingres’s thousand shades of gray. You can hear how Richter simulated these numerous gradations in “Pictures,” wherein even the most delicate sounds (for the Cum Mortuis at the end of the “Catacombs” section, or the pianissimo in the “Great Gate of Kiev”) seem to have physical presence, definite weight, which fills the room no less palpably and formidably than the big climaxes.
The clinkers (famously in the very opening Promenade of “Pictures” in the live recording he made in Sofia in 1958) proved the urgency of his playing and refusal to do anything mechanically. In this sense, he was the antithesis of the cold, late-model note-perfect musician. He could be stolid, humorless, and frustratingly unpredictable. Some of his Beethoven sonatas sound crude and uncooked. But nobody, not even Walter Gieseking, played French music more fluently: with brio, clarity, and structure, never primly. His Bach, fervid, entirely clear, reverential but alive, was usually underrated. Richter was one of the last century’s fascinating, idiosyncratic Bach players.
It is useful to read what he once wrote about Gould, whom he met when Gould played in Moscow in 1957:
It seems to me that his principal merit lies on the level of sonority, a sonority that is exactly what suits Bach best. But, in my own view Bach’s music demands more depth and austerity, whereas with Gould everything is just a little too brilliant and superficial. Above all, however, he doesn’t play all the repeats, and that’s something for which I really can’t forgive him. It suggests that he doesn’t actually love Bach sufficiently.
That was quintessential Richter, as he comes across both in Bruno Monsaingeon’s film and book about the pianist: highly cultivated, perceptive but caustic, particularly about what he perceived as superficiality and egotism, qualities that he thought manifested themselves most egregiously as insufficient reverence for the score—never mind the liberties he allowed himself to take. This attitude may partly be what gave to Richter’s own playing its occasionally ferocious sobriety, which detractors called oppressive authority, a kind of granitic virtuosity in the name of selflessness. (Listen to his version of Schumann’s Toccata, with its jackhammer sounds, or his Chopin “Revolutionary” Etude in the film, amazingly swift but brutal, to get another taste of that side of him.) This unsmiling, unquestionable authority was loosely linked during the cold war by some censorious Americans with the Soviet regime that had exploited Richter as an exemplar of national cultural prowess, as if his playing were a musical equivalent of political oppression, a glib and cruel notion to have applied to an artist who, despite having received privileges in his later years, suffered too under that regime.
One could make precisely the opposite observation about him: that his playing of, say, the last movement of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, composed in the midst of World War II, a relentless syncopated performance of grueling intensity and powerful sonority, which Richter ground out at a constant breakneck fortissimo, was his eloquent statement of anti-totalitarian sentiment. Recapitulating Prokofiev’s own view of the sonata he said: “With this work, we are brutally plunged into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance. Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces unleashed. But this does not mean that what we lived by before thereby ceases to exist. We continue to feel and to love…. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force.” You may prefer more dynamically varied and slyer performances of this masterpiece, like Vladimir Horowitz’s or Martha Argerich’s, but it is hard not to acknowledge the latent humanity in Richter’s.
The imputation of Sovietism to Richter’s playing was as simplistic as the cliché of a Russian school of pianism, a commonplace among music critics during the cold war, reflecting a presumption of Western enlightenment versus Soviet isolation and backwardness. It implied that the styles of Richter, Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Gilels, Grigory Sokolov, and Maria Yudina, to choose a mix of better- and lesser-known examples of Russian pianists, have something to do with one another. These are pianists of determinedly distinctive temperament. As Ashkenazy once put it about Richter: “The strongest element in his magnetic appeal to audiences is his conviction that what he does is absolutely right at that particular moment. It comes from the fact that he has created his own inner world, absolutely complete in his mind, and if you argue with him about anything it’s almost no use.” He added, “I don’t often agree with him after the performance, but during it I can see that everything fits together and is completely sincere and devoted, and that wins me over.”
Determination, sincerity, strength in abundance. Everything about Richter seemed outsized. A massive man with a large head and very big hands, he had, in addition to a Herculean technique, an astonishing, obsessive energy into his seventies. Aside from practicing twelve hours a day (he denied this to Monsaingeon, but it was true), Richter gave more than 3,500 concerts, according to Monsaingeon’s estimate. He played more than 850 times in Moscow alone, and performed works by Shostakovich (4,641 times), Rachmaninoff (2,683), Debussy (2,444), and Beethoven (2,327) more often than most other pianists perform all the works in their repertoire during a lifetime. He was a throwback to the great nineteenth-century virtuoso Anton Rubinstein, from whom Richter descended pedagogically (Rubinstein taught Felix Blumenthal, Neuhaus’s teacher). During some years Richter performed more than two hundred different works, one tenth of them new to him, and in all kept about eighty different programs in his fingers, not counting innumerable works of chamber music.
More amazing than his memory (until it too failed him in his seventies and he started to perform solo music with scores) was his Lisztian sight-reading ability. He learned and memorized Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata in four days for its world première. Regularly he would add works he had never played before to programs shortly before recitals to amuse himself. “It’s not unknown for me to play through a whole piece for the first time on stage,” he claimed. That was the case, he said, with Schumann’s vast “Humoreske.” (“I must say the concert wasn’t too bad,” he recalled.)
Playing the piano seems to have come almost too easily to him because he erected obstacles that went beyond leaving to the last minute what would have taken most pianists weeks, months, or years to learn. He contended, for example, that his 1960 American tour, which is now recalled as one of the great musical triumphs of the century, had gone poorly
because I was allowed to choose my own piano. I was presented with dozens and I spent all the time thinking that I’d chosen the wrong one. Nothing is worse for a pianist than to choose the instrument on which he’s going to have to perform. You should play on whichever piano happens to be in the hall, as though fate intended it so. Everything then becomes much easier from a psychological point of view. I remember Igumnov [the great Russian pedagogue, a student of Liszt’s] saying to me one day: “you don’t like pianos!” “Possibly so,” I replied, “I prefer the music.” I never choose a piano and don’t try them out before a concert. It’s useless and demoralizing.
Even after his luxurious arrangement with Yamaha, he played on whatever piano was available in various out-of-the-way places where he suddenly had decided to give an impromptu recital.
For decades he lived in Moscow as a virtual itinerant, sleeping under Neuhaus’s piano, then in a student dormitory. He didn’t have his own instrument even after being awarded the Stalin Prize, the nation’s highest honor, at which point he began to ask for a flat large enough to accommodate two grands. Therein may be the only Soviet aspect of his personality, if there was one: not a totalitarian manner of playing, whatever that might mean, but a belief in the subservience of individual desire for the good of a greater entity, not the nation in Richter’s case but the music of Bach or Beethoven—and yet a private awareness of his personal worth, an egotism that led to inner conflict.
Monsaingeon’s book, a peculiar but nonetheless entertaining pseudo-autobiography which weaves together remarks by Richter from interviews for the film the author produced, includes various signs of this conflict. At one point, Richter acknowledges chronic depression, most seriously in 1974 when, he says, “it was impossible for me to live without a plastic lobster that I took with me everywhere, leaving it behind only at the very moment that I went out on stage. This was accompanied by a type of auditory hallucination that tormented me for months on end, day and night, even while I was asleep.” The hallucination turned out to be a musical work that had affected Richter so strongly as a child that it became the model for several juvenile compositions. Elsewhere he describes Shostakovich as
a genius, but completely mad, like the rest of us. Why did I say “like the rest of us”? I’m not mad, I’m the most normal person you could imagine. I just mention that in passing. Perhaps I might have wanted to be mad. It’s always like that….
And then he suddenly makes the remark with which Monsaingeon ends his film: “I do not like myself.”
What, if anything, might that statement have had to do with the uses made of him by a Soviet regime he despised? His relationship to Soviet authority was, like the relationships of many prominent and gifted artists who survived Stalinism, based on a judicious compromise, and this must have taken a psychological toll. He was in no way a dissident and he is insistent about that. It was widely said and frequently reported that he was homosexual, but he never talked publicly about this, homosexuality being a crime in the Soviet Union. He was pragmatic. The freedom to travel that he enjoyed in later years, when he lived part of the time in France and performed regularly at the Fêtes Musicales de Touraine at La Grange de Meslay, an ancient barn, near Tours, came at the price of public silence and tacit political acquiescence.
He declined to join the Communist Party (many other artists became members, including Gilels) but he played Bach and Beethoven at Stalin’s funeral because he was compelled to. He was flown from Tbilisi to Moscow overnight on a plane full of funeral wreaths. He told Monsaingeon that he found the funeral “deeply repugnant…. I returned home. All I wanted to do was to take a shower.” He also performed music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich in Moscow after Stalin’s 1948 decree against new music. And in 1960, he played at the funeral of Pasternak, whom he knew through Neuhaus, an act of political defiance since Pasternak was vigorously disapproved of by Soviet authorities. After this, for a couple of years, his tours in the West were canceled. Soviet officials said the cause was ill health.
Having obtained his own flat, a capacious apartment he shared with his wife, the excellent singer Nina Dorliac, he filled it with art by banned painters like the Russian Robert Falk, and presented occasional shows from his collection for invited guests. Under the Soviets such viewings of nonconformist artists were a substitute for public exhibitions. In these and other ways, he hoped to dictate his own terms while inevitably facing more powerful forces, whether a record producer or the Soviet government. Making music was obviously an escape, a retreat, a realm entirely of his own devising whose value was in direct proportion to his ability to isolate it, and thereby himself, from the ugly vicissitudes of the rest of life—this was the “inner world,” with its austere integrity, that Ashkenazy pointed to. And the private conflicts it sustained may account for the extreme, neurotic intensity of his playing—its occasional irascibility and violence but also its constant passion.
Monsaingeon’s book is peculiar because it isn’t a biography or an autobiography (of the “as-told-to” sort), nor does it claim to be either. It begins with an introduction by Monsaingeon about the making of his film, which entailed a lengthy courtship of Richter, who typically played hard to get, and who died before the project was completed. Monsaingeon hid a camera in his family’s apartment in Antibes, where he persuaded Richter to convalesce in early 1998, and the two pretended not to be making a film while Richter spoke. The book contains a compilation of remarks by Richter during these interviews, deftly presented in the form of an autobiography, and supplemented by interviews he gave to others. Monsaingeon mentions these other sources but doesn’t cite them. We must trust him that all the quotations are accurate.
Naturally there are vast gaps in the story and many unanswered questions. A real biography would be welcome someday. Monsaingeon’s book makes no mention of tours like the one Richter made to Italy after the Florence flood in 1966. He gave ten recitals in aid of the flood victims and helped rescue books from the mud, just as Liszt, 128 years earlier, had rushed to Vienna when the Danube overflowed and gave eight recitals for its victims. Nor does the book mention Richter’s 1970 trip to the United States, during which his performance at Carnegie Hall with the violinist David Oistrakh, a good friend, was disrupted by demonstrators protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews. They stormed down the aisles. This deeply offended Richter, who thought it especially insulting to Oistrakh, who was Jewish. Richter never returned to America.
The film, despite being slightly unctuous, is nevertheless serious and includes lengthy excerpts from performances. We see Richter’s playful, wry, surprisingly delicate manner of speech and movement. The book has much more information. Its final section is culled from Richter’s notebooks, which he kept between Christmas 1970 and autumn 1995: seven large double-sided school exercise books with the dates and places of concerts and recordings by him and others, and comments about the performances. Pianists will find intriguing his remarks about practicing and repertoire (a typical eccentricity, he calls the Scriabin Fifth Sonata and Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz the most difficult pieces for the piano), and his harsh and sometimes unwarranted barbs tossed at colleagues like Horowitz (“such a talent and such a trivial mind”); Gilels (“he had a frightful temperament, was extremely touchy and was always sulking. He was pathologically jealous”); and Rostropovich (“He always took the credit for everything and harbored ambitions that had nothing to do with music—and this from a man who was a musician to the very core of his being. That’s something I’ve never been able to tolerate”). He is especially amusing about the oddball Bach specialist Maria Yudina, a cultish figure in mid-century Russian musical circles, still underappreciated in the West, whom Richter calls a monstre sacré. She wandered about Moscow with a revolver, dressed like a bum; she cared for the poor and walked on stage as if into a strong headwind, carrying a crucifix. Richter says:
She said of me: “Richter? Hmm! As a pianist, he’s good for Rachmaninov.” On her lips, that wasn’t a compliment…. To tell the truth, I really didn’t like her. No doubt she was sincere, but her relations with composers seemed to me to be dishonest. Even so, I played at her funeral. Rachmaninov.
Despite Monsaingeon’s self-serving tone and occasional exaggerated pronouncements, he reconstructs Richter’s life clearly, with fresh material. Born in 1915, Richter was from a German family that settled in Ukraine, the son of a pianist and composer who had studied in Vienna with the composer Franz Schreker. He started to play the piano at eight, and except for a few lessons with a pupil of his father’s, he was self-taught. He worked as an accompanist at the Sailors’ Club in Odessa and a répétiteur at the Odessa Opera during the early days of collectivization, when the family was grateful if he was paid with a sack of potatoes. Like most pianists before the postwar era of professional specialization, he composed. (“They were short works, extremely inept, obviously, all for the piano. My first serious work was an opera, of course.”) But he lost his interest in composing when he began to study composition with Sergey Kondratiev, a teacher “so boring that he robbed me of any desire to write music.”
“I was nineteen when I had the mad idea of giving a solo recital,” he recalled. He prepared a Chopin recital for the Odessa Engineers’ Club on March 19, 1934, and says he almost died of stage fright. It was his first recital and the last one he ever gave in that city. Three years later, at the age of twenty-two, when most pianists start careers, he moved to Moscow and became Neuhaus’s student at the conservatory. He loathed Odessa, which he associated with the betrayal and death of his father. During the early 1930s, Theophil Richter had been invited to teach at the German consulate and Sviatoslav played there, too, at soirées and on the occasion of Hindenburg’s death in 1934. When Hitler rose to power, the association ended, but the connection was noted by Soviet authorities.
Then war broke out and Kondratiev, whom Richter repeatedly describes as an insufferable chatterbox and hypochondriac, moved in with Richter’s parents. It soon became evident that the couple should leave Odessa before the German advance, but his mother refused to go without Kondratiev. Richter’s chronology is vague but it’s clear that Kondratiev left with Richter’s mother while Richter’s father was arrested by the Soviet authorities in June 1941 and executed. “Rumour had it that it was because Kondratiev, hoping to get rid of my father, had written an anonymous letter,” said Richter, who didn’t even learn that his father was dead until years later. “Of course, it was easy to denounce other people at this time on the flimsiest of pretexts; and Kondratiev was a dubious individual, in spite of his origins and education. But I still find it hard to believe that he’d stoop so low.”
Thanks to his father’s old contacts with the consulate, his mother and Kondratiev were able to leave with the German army and they settled near Stuttgart. They married and Kondratiev even assumed the Richter name, eventually going so far as to claim to be the famous Sviatoslav Richter’s uncle and then father. Kondratiev and his mother showed up during Richter’s United States tour in 1960 (Richter hadn’t seen her for nineteen years), contributing to Richter’s misery in America, and Kondratiev was also there on the day of Richter’s debut in Vienna—a city of special significance to Richter because of his father—to announce that Richter’s mother was dying. Predictably, the recital was a fiasco.
Richter was unhappy in America, but the new two-disc set of stereo recordings from that 1960 tour, most of it previously unpublished, is a landmark that proves instantly why he caused a sensation. It combines a complete recital at Carnegie Hall on December 26 with encores from two days later at a performance at Newark’s Mosque Theatre. In the early 1960s, Columbia Records issued seven mono LPs from various concerts he had given during the start of the tour in October 1960, which were never reissued because Richter objected strongly to them. He did, however, sign off on the December recordings, which were made in stereo; but for some reason only a few of these performances were ever released. Now unearthed by RCA, they include Haydn’s late C Major Sonata, the Prokofiev Sixth Sonata, and various shorter works by Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Chopin.
The Haydn, with which he began the Carnegie recital, despite its vigor, illustrates Richter’s willfulness—exaggerated tempos, fickle attention to phrase markings—and a self-consciousness that suggests he wanted to be perceived in the classical repertoire as intelligent, which is to say independent-minded, at the cost of propriety and scale. Sometimes Richter could simply be too interesting.
The Prokofiev sonata, on the other hand, is one of the great performances on record. The speed and clarity of the second and fourth movements combine with lyricism and delicacy—sadness—which are the core of this complex composer’s sensibility. Richter’s fingers are always amazing, but it is his sensitivity to the sly, sultry, ironic, and melancholic aspects of Prokofiev, the black humor and introspection, that elevate his performance.
And his Chopin—three études, including a subtler “Revolutionary” étude than the one in Monsaingeon’s film, a mazurka, the A-flat Ballade, and E Major Scherzo—take liberties in the spirit of nineteenth-century players, mostly to beautiful, frequently plaintive effect, as in the ballade, which encapsulates Richter’s chivalric and romantic spirit.
In Monsaingeon’s book, Richter says that an interpreter is just a “mirror, and performing music doesn’t mean contaminating the piece with your own personality….” But of course this was fiction and he knew it. He said that in later years his preference for playing in darkened halls, with only a lamp beside the piano, was “to empty my head of all non-essential thoughts and allow the listener to concentrate on the music rather than on the performer. What’s the point of watching a pianist’s hands or face, when they really only express the effort being expended on the piece?” The reverse was true. It was an otherworldly sight to see him, wraithlike in his old age, walk dourly before a London audience in a nearly pitch-black St. James’s Church in Piccadilly on a winter evening not many years before he died; he bowed, arms outstretched, the small lamp next to the keyboard outlining his silhouette, like a crucifix, against the altar wall behind him. After what seemed like an eternal pause he began Schubert’s B-flat Sonata at his famously glacial pace so that the first movement stretched to nearly thirty minutes. The performance was perverse and astonishingly, unceasingly fascinating, a tour de force of sustained concentration and long, arching melodies during which every note, even every grace note, seemed elemental. There was no Biedermeier coziness in Richter’s Schubert, none of Wilhelm Kempff’s wistfulness or Murray Perahia’s velvet poetry, but instead, longing, urgency, and grave undercurrents. And theater. It’s no surprise to learn from Monsaingeon that Richter’s first love was opera and his favorite composer was Wagner.
Like Horowitz or Michelangeli but unlike many modern pianists, he was keenly attuned to stage effects. This is one reason there are so few pi-anists with anything approaching the aura of Richter or Horowitz today. “A certain element of theatricality, which seems to me to be sadly lacking in the formality of the concert hall, must exist for the music to be heard,” Richter told Monsaingeon. And he describes in the film as well as in the book how, for example, having learned from Neuhaus that the most essential elements in the Liszt Sonata were its silences, he devised
a dangerous stratagem that would almost certainly not work for others but that has rendered me sterling service…. I come out on to the stage. I sit down, and I don’t move a muscle. I create the sense of emptiness within myself, and in my head I count up to thirty, very slowly. This causes panic in the audience: “What’s happening? Is he ill?” Then, and only then, I play the G. In this way, the note sounds totally unexpected, but in an intentional way.
Vladimir Nabokov once defined a philistine as “a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.” Russians, he said, had a special name for smug philistinism—poshlust. The word suggests “the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.”
Richter was the opposite of poshlust. He was the last of the great Romantic virtuosos. Neuhaus said, “I do not take pride in Sviatoslav Richter as a pupil of mine.” The best he could do was to “take pride in having been chosen as his teacher.” But perhaps the most telling compliment was the remark by Gilels to American musical journalists when he preceded Richter to the United States on his own triumphant tour in 1955. Gilels said, “Wait until you hear Richter.”
November 1, 2001