Sviatoslav Richter centenary tribute

Jed Distler Fri 20th March 2015

Jed Distler looks at the career and recordings of one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, a performer whose range of repertoire was as large as it was idiosyncratic

Richter's complete recordings for Decca, Philips and DG box-set

Richter's complete recordings for Decca, Philips and DG box-set

Defining moments

  • January 18, 1943 – premieres Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata in Moscow

    Richter met Prokofiev through Neuhaus and remained a lifelong advocate of the composer. He learned the Seventh Sonata in four days prior to giving its first performance.

  • October – December 1960 – First North American tour

    Richter criss-crossed the continent to sold-out houses, standing ovations and rave reviews, despite his claim to have been in a state of ‘almost permanent panic’. In later years Richter was quoted to say that he only liked three things about America: the cocktails, the art galleries and the orchestras.

  • 1964 – Tours Festival

    Searching the Loire Valley for a festival venue, Richter fell in love with the Grange de Meslay, a majestic monastic building dating as far back as the ninth century and originally constructed for agricultural use. With concert promoter Jacques Leiser, Richter launched the festival’s first concerts in the summer of 1964, where he collaborated for the first time with the violinist David Oistrakh.

  • 1981 – December Nights at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum

    Inaugurates annual concert series around thematic ideas where music, visual art and literature came together. One festival dedicated to English music and painters featured Britten’s operas Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw, both staged by Richter.

  • 1986 – Siberian tour

    At 71, Richter showed no signs of slowing down with age. On July 20 he embarked on an extensive six-month concert tour by car through Siberia, stopping in Japan along the way. He played everywhere from large cities to small distant towns not accustomed to hosting concerts. 

Great pianists often have one trait that dominates others: Sergey Rachmaninov’s left-hand thrusts, Alfred Cortot’s rubato, Vladimir Horowitz’s thundering sonority, Glenn Gould’s détaché articulation, and so forth. By contrast, Sviatoslav Richter was something of a stylistic Zelig, a chameleon who couldn’t be pigeonholed. He called himself ‘a normal human being who happens to play the piano’, yet his artistry often provoked contradictory reactions.

For example, Gould wrote that Richter was the kind of musician who achieves ‘such a perfect liaison with the instrument that the mechanical process involved becomes all but invisible…and the performer, and consequently the listener, is then able to ignore all superficial questions of virtuosity or instrumental display and concentrate instead on the spiritual qualities inherent in the music itself’. Yet New York Times critic Bernard Holland offered the opposite observation: ‘With his proclivity for colour and sonority, Richter surrenders to the primary tenet of the Soviet school: that the instrument dictates the style of performance and that when music and that style clash, music must adjust.’

Nor could one pin down Richter’s interpretations. In Schubert, Richter would take agonisingly slow and searching tempi for the sixth of the Moments musicaux and the opening movements of the piano sonatas in C (D840), G (D894) and B flat (D960). Yet he’d plough through the Wanderer Fantasy and the first movement of the Sonata in D (D850) with determined ferocity. Or Beethoven. For every reticent, rounded-off Tempest Sonata and slow-motion Op 14 No 1 Allegretto, you’d get an Appassionata coda that took off like a bat out of hell. Different recordings of the same works often revealed more than one Richter. One only has to compare the solid and well-played studio traversal of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition next to the electrifying 1958 Sofia concert version – dim sound, finger slips and all.

Richter marched to his own drum from the start. Born on March 20, 1915, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, the pianist more or less taught himself, and developed into an uncanny sight-reader who preferred devouring opera scores at first glance than woodshedding piano repertoire – a far cry from the disciplined practice habits of Richter’s maturity. When the family moved to Odessa, the teenage Richter helped make ends meet by working in nightclubs, factories, nursing homes, collective farming associations, and as an accompanist for amateur singers, circus acts, silent films and everything in between.

After trying his hand at an all-Chopin recital, Richter decided to seriously pursue a concert career. He moved to Moscow and auditioned for one of the Moscow Conservatory’s most sought-after teachers, Heinrich Neuhaus. Despite Richter’s lack of experience and training, Neuhaus immediately perceived his unusual talents. ‘He freed my hands, and freed me from a very harsh sound I produced,’ Richter recalled of his teacher in a 1986 interview. ‘Above all, he taught me the meaning of silence and the meaning of singing.’

By the 1940s and ’50s Richter’s reputation loomed large within the Soviet Union and Communist bloc countries, particularly for his unusually wide and eclectic repertoire. In fact, Richter drew attention for what he did not play. The pianist felt no obligation to programme or record complete cycles, except for Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier over four nights. Richter programmed many Beethoven sonatas, yet steered clear of two favourites: the Waldstein and the Moonlight. Of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, Richter only played the First and Third. He programmed and recorded Brahms’s Second Concerto but never the First. Most of Chopin’s Etudes figured on Richter’s concerts but not the ‘Black Key’ or the ‘Octave’.

In May 1960 Richter played his first Western concert in Helsinki, and in October embarked on his first tour of the United States, highlighted by a series of Carnegie Hall programmes that quickly put him on the international map. The pianist’s career expanded further throughout Western Europe and Japan but avoided North America after 1970. By the late 1980s Richter had established a pattern of touring small, intimate venues with his Yamaha grand in tow, always playing from the score.

It may be far-fetched to draw parallels between this pianist and a rock band, but in many respects Sviatoslav Richter was the Grateful Dead of classical pianists. Each amassed a faithful cult following, yet broached the limelight with trepidation. Each released successful studio recordings, yet truly flourished with an audience present. Hundreds of live recordings beyond the ‘official’ releases continue to circulate. By the time Richter and the Dead gave their respective last concerts in 1995, both were living legends, ragged around the edges, to be sure, yet the flashes of greatness were worth it.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Gramophone.

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