There are many videos available online of the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter at work. In the “comments” section under many of the Richter videos one will often find a person complaining or simply stating that the recording is “fake” or appears to them to be “speeded up.” In this age of photo editing and video editing software, this era in which we assume lies are being told and fakery is afoot, it is something of a backwards compliment being paid to Sviatoslav Richter, who was born 100 years ago today.
Anyone who could cover the keyboard that completely, that quickly, could not have been real. He could, he did, and he was.
Below is a clip of Richter tearing into the Étude Op. 10, No. 4 by Chopin, which is written to be played very fast, with passion; the sheet music itself overflows with notes. In Richter’s hands, it is volcanic.
Imagine the floor under that piano.
Sviatoslav Richter was born March 20, 1915, in Zhytomyr, a city in Ukraine in the Russian Empire, to a German father who was a pianist and composer and a Russian mother. His mother’s family was land-owning, nobility, and her father did not want his daughter to marry a commoner, a German. (He had been her piano instructor.) The Russian Revolution broke the family apart—being a land-owning family was no longer a good thing and being a German artist in a foreign country was not a happy matter, either—Richter was raised till age four by an aunt. He discovered his love of art and music on his own.
Most professional musicians, then and today, begin their studies of the instrument and the body of music written for the instrument at a young age. They attend classes at a conservatory, which cultivates their talents into skills (and vice versa) and places them in the fraternity or sorority of fellow musicians and music creators. Not Richter. He discovered that he loved music, particularly opera, was an able self-taught pianist, and started to accompany singers while they were rehearsing.
In the one long, career-spanning, interview he consented to, Bruno Monsaingeon’s film “Richter l’insoumis” (“Richter the Enigma“), Richter tells the story of his backwards path to his legendary career in a dispassionate way, the way one might describe an unfulfilling lunch. He decided, he said in the film, that one day he would give a recital, even though he had no formal training, and then he decided to go to the Moscow Conservatory and search out the leading piano pedagogue of the time: Heinrich Neuhaus. Neuhaus recounted that he was amazed that someone would have the temerity to decide for themselves to volunteer to join the Conservatory, but he chose to hear Richter audition. At the audition, Neuhaus declared, “This man’s a genius.”
In that Stalinist era, even conservatory students were mandated to attend classes in whatever Socialist thought was required that school session by the Politburo. In a pattern that he followed to the end of the Soviet Era, Richter did not make any grand gestures of refusal to attend those classes, he simply did not show up for them, since they were irrelevant to music-making. The Conservatory would dismiss him, and Neuhaus would successfully get him reinstated.
Soviet officialdom treated Richter as an apolitical oddity. He was not interested in performing in the West and the Soviets were not interested in allowing him to do so. When he finally traveled beyond the Iron Curtain, he was in his mid 40s. A handful of concert tours in the United States reinforced in Richter a dislike of flying, of America (he felt that America was “standardized”), of being pressed into concertizing on demand. He preferred giving concerts on short notice.
He became famous for traveling the Soviet Union with his Yamaha grand piano, and on finding a community that struck his interest, offering to perform. For some Siberians, a performance by Sviatoslav Richter may have been the first and only live music they ever heard. Later in life, as restrictions were lessened, he expanded his travels to western Europe and Japan. A famous quote from Richter describes his ideal: “Put a small piano in a truck and drive out on country roads; take time to discover new scenery; stop in a pretty place where there is a good church; unload the piano and tell the residents; give a concert; offer flowers to the people who have been so kind as to attend; leave again.” Monsaingeon called him a musical “missionary.”
At any given moment, he possessed in his repertoire some eighty different programs, the breadth of which outstrips many of the other great pianists. Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Schubert and Beethoven, his contemporary Prokofiev, Debussy, Britten, Liszt, a smidge of Bach. Of Bach, he rendered this famous (and deadly) judgement: “It does no harm to listen to Bach from time to time, even if only from a hygienic standpoint.” (In Monsaingeon’s film, he is shown reading the quote with a delighted smirk on his face.)
He believed that the performer was an instrument at the service of the composer and that interpretation was too loose a word for what his job was. Some musicians, great musicians, can add themselves to the composition in their playing. Richter, who certainly was up to the task of playing fast and thunderous when required, also played quieter and slower adagio than many others, giving the audience something to savor.
He was not without theatrical flourishes, though. Upon sitting at the piano, he would wait for up to thirty seconds with his sculpted chin thrust in the air and then begin, knowing that the wait built up a tension in the audience that only he and his instrument could relieve. Also, he often required that the theater turn off all lights while he played except for a desk lamp on the keyboard so he could see his instrument. No grimacing musician face, no view of anything to distract from the music, just an illuminated keyboard floating in front of the audience with two great hands pulling music from it.
Nothing to distract from the music. That is why Richter’s centenary is being celebrated worldwide today.
Here, in two parts, is Bruno Monsaingeon’s 1998 documentary, “Richter the Enigma.” It was filmed in 1997, shortly before Richter’s death that year, at age 82.
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