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Richter in the First Person
On March 20, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Grand Master Pianist of the 20th century Sviatoslav Richter, to whom we are lucky to be compatriots and coevals. In many respects he was different from others – in his unique manner of performing and his absolutely uncompromising nature. Richter was perhaps the only professional pianist in history of music performance who never taught and who only played what he wanted to and how he wanted to.
Infancy and Opera
Music played at the Richters’ at all times, and little Sviatoslav was listening to piano sounds since his infancy. It seemed the boy was not receiving proper attention from his father Theophil Richter, who invested all his time and effort into teaching to feed his family. In 1922, the Richters moved to Odessa, where Theophil Richter spent twenty five years working as a teacher in Odessa Conservatory and as an organist in the orchestra of Odessa Opera.
Slava Richter took his first lessons of piano playing and composition at home. However, as it so often happens, tutor-apprentice relations between his parents and him just wouldn’t work. Mostly, he was learning on his own, or on his mother’s or father’s watch, with the latter periodically surprised at why his son would not play exercises conventional for all musicians.
As he later himself confessed, Slava had skipped progressions and scales in favor of Chopin’s nocturne No.1. His mother Anna Richter stood by her son: let him learn the way he wants. And so he played anything he would, and opera piano scores were his special favorite – and remained so throughout his life. “I was fiercely drawn to the theater,” he remembered in his interview for French TV, “and when I turned 15, I started to accompany compilation concerts, I played clubs, I started making some money, and once I earned a sack of potatoes. I worked for three years in the Palace of Marines, and they then took me to the opera. And the opera raised me.”
After that, the young man found a job with Odessa Theater – although in ballet, not opera. Already back then he developed his own style of accompanying – imitating orchestra sound. “Every time I played, it was like a concert: I performed,” he remembered. And yet, Richter chose the art of piano for himself – and he could afford it. He wrote in his memoirs, as to why: “When seventeen, I felt that the piano was a very good thing. It was strange... In the summer I was staying in Zhitomir, and [David] Oistrakh with [Vsevolod] Topilin came there. I went to that concert and got a bit bored at this purely musical performance – I was poisoned by theatricality; I wanted a stage set, a plot... But I was blown out of the water by Topilin’s playing Chopin’s fourth ballad. Probably it was the age: it works too well when you are seventeen.” Thus, thanks to Topilin, Richter decided for good to be a pianist.
Neuhaus’s Best Apprentice
Richter had never graduated any school before he moved to Moscow in 1937 – when he was 22. His move was likely well-considered, following the arrest of his father, accused of ties with the German Consul and collaboration with Nazis. It is likely that neither fortuitous was the fact that Sviatoslav’s pedagogue was a Russified German, Heinrich Neuhaus, who had become the picky apprentice’s favorite already back in Ukraine, where he had toured with master-classes.
“Students asked me to audition a young man from Odessa aspiring to join my class at the conservatory. ‘Has he graduated from a music school?’ I asked. ‘No, he has not studied anywhere.’ I admit, the answer somewhat baffled me: a man of no music education intending to apply to the conservatory! I was curious to see the brave man,” Neuhaus recalled. “So, there he comes – a tall, skinny youth, fair hair, blue eyes, lively and amazingly attractive features. He sits down at the grand piano, puts his large, soft and nervous hands to the keys and plays. He played very moderately – I would even say, he was accentuating simplicity and austerity. And his performance immediately captured me with perplexing penetration into the music. I whispered to a girl I was teaching: ‘I think, he is a genius musician.’ After Beethoven’s twenty-eighth sonata, the young man played a few pieces of his own, and he read off the page. And everyone present wanted him to continue playing. Starting that day, Sviatoslav Richter became my apprentice.”
Richter made it both to the class of Heinrich Neuhaus and to his house. In the latter he enjoyed a special status – he even lived there for a while. Finally, Richter found his ideal teacher in Neuhaus: “My teachers are Dad, Neuhaus and Wagner. Neuhaus was a brilliant man. He was of the same type as my father – just much lighter.”
Neuhaus referred to Richter’s method of learning a piece as “all-hands on deck”. During these periods the pianist work eight to ten hours non-stop. Richter could spend eternity over a single page of notes, if it did not come out smooth enough. Later he practiced with a clock, displaying German punctuality in planning his class time – say, 2 hours 34 minutes. Once the exact time was up, Sviatoslav rose from the instrument.
Richter met his future if not formal wife singer Nina Dorliak in the conservatory in 1943. His first “proposal” came in 1945 – he proposed to produce a concert together. Dorliak asked if he wanted to split the performance time in two – half piano and half vocal. But Richter stated he simply wanted to accompany her singing. And thus a union of two very different and very talented persons came to be. Their relations can be best illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote that “the lovers should not look at each other, but in the same direction.”
Richter dismissed exactness in the choice of a musical instrument as needless pretentiousness. He recalled: “Igumnov once told me: ‘You do not love grand pianos!’ I answered: ‘Perhaps. I prefer music.’”
Richter boasted refined and original taste in painting – he loved drawing as an infant. “If he had not been a great pianist, he would have made an excellent artist,” the famous modernist Robert Falk said of Richter.
Richter was often referred to as a pioneer in music. On many occasions, he brought on stage pieces otherwise not popular – and other pianists would start playing them afterwards. So it was with Sñhubert and Myaskosky, for example. It sounds an absolute sacrilege now, but half a century ago Richter used to get such remarks: “Why would you play Sñhubert? You should play Schumann!” To which he would retort: “I play what I like, and since I like it, the audience is interested to hear it.”
Richter was absolutely independent in his views – and not only of music. Once notorious USSR Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furtseva in a conversation with the pianist complained over the unacceptable conduct of Mstislav Rostropovich: “What is he thinking?! Why does this nightmarish Solzhenitsyn live in their summer house?!” Richter whole-heartedly supported her: “I totally agree! That’s a nightmare! The place is so small – let Solzhenitsyn rather stay at my place!”
On December 29, one could abandon all hope to get hold of the tickets for December Nights 1985. At that time, the festival founded on Richter’s very own initiative was the most prestigious event both in music and the culture life of Moscow. And the tickets to the concert the maestro was playing could – if at all – be obtained either from the hands of ticket scalpers, or through sleepless nights by the campfire near the box-office of the Pushkin Museum. They promised a storm of a show: Polonaise-Fantasie, Etudes and Ballads by Frédéric Chopin.
Right before the concert the gossip of the pianist having gone missing started spreading. Friends whispered to one another that in the morning he had a row with his wife and staggered off into the streets. The concert did take place – thanks to the German punctuality. But it was an unfortunate performance for Richter – he made mistakes and was out of tempo at times. And, by the way, a few years later his memory started to fail him, and since then he played by the notes only. And that unfortunate recording disappeared.
Nobody knew for sure, if the recording of that performance at all existed and where if so. They discovered it accidentally in 2007, in the sound library of Melodiya – the largest record retailer, on a U-matic tape, mainly used to track video. Melodiya’s editors went into long expert discussions, if it was ethical to showcase imperfect Richter. The musicians in the know even suggested putting the tape back on the shelf… In the end, they ran it. Was it ethical or not, and would the pianist himself agree is not known. But they thought they had to run it, for he was a genius. “He found the power to get a grip and play, to stop, go back and play again – masterfully this time. At every note, the genius finds his power,” as Alexei Skanavi, the pianist and music scholar, says.
This situation is perfectly harmonious with the life path of the great musician and our attitude towards him. Richter’s art has always been causing myriad articles and discussions. Even the recordings and performances apparently flawless often caused opposition of opinions.
Some considered Richter’s manner excessively dry, passionless and detached, but the majority were fans to his interpretations of Beethoven’s Appassionato and the Grande Sonate Pathetique, Liszt’s sonate h-moll and Transcendental Etudes, Brahms’s piano concerto no.2 and Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no.1, Schubert’s Der Wanderer and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition …
In memory of the Musician
Commemorating Sviatoslav Richter’s hundredth anniversary, Pushkin Museum is currently hosting a very interesting exhibition – Sviatoslav Richter in the First Person. As all other museum’s exhibitions, this one is high in detail and displays a series of totally unique materials first time on display. Apart from the memorial documentary section, the exhibition showcases over sixty paintings and artworks. The exhibition has been organized by Pushkin Museum’s President and Richter’s close friend Irina Antonova.
On the pianist’s birthday, the twentieth of March, the wonderful music will sound. The Great Hall of the Conservatory is to host A Tribute to Sviatoslav Richter. Pieces by Prokofiev and Shostakovich will be performed by famous modern musicians – Soloists of Moscow Chamber Ensemble and the State Symphonic Orchestra New Russia conducted by Yuri Bashmet and with cello soloist Natalia Gutman. On that note, it was Yuri Bashmet who took over the artistic direction of the December Nights following the passing of the great musician. Rich traditions and high musical standard no doubt remain, and the Russian musicians perform and not play wherever they go, in memory of Great Richter.
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