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Richter Plays Beethoven

Sonata No. 1, op. 2

Sonata No. 7, op. 10, 3

Sonata No. 8, op. 13 (Pathétique)

Sonata No. 9, op. 14, 1

Sonata No. 12, op. 26

Sonata No. 23, op. 57 (Appassionata)

Sonata No. 27, op. 90

Sonata No. 30, op. 109

Sonata No. 31, op. 110

Sonata No. 32, op. 111

Six Variations, op. 34

Eroica’ Variations, op. 35

Diabelli Variations

Six Variations, op 76

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Richter Plays Rachmaninov

Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 1
USSR RTV Symphony Orchestra, Kurt Sanderling, 1962

Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 18
Leningrad Philharmonic, Kurt Sanderling, 1959

Prelude op. 23 /4
Moscow, December 1954

Étude-Tableau op. 39 /3
No Performance Indication

Preludes (op. 23, 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8; op. 32, 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12)
Studio Recording, Salzburg, IX, 1971

Études-Tableaux (op. 33, 9, 5, 6; op. 39, 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 7)
Studio Recording, Munich, IV, 1983

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Richter Plays Liszt

Mephisto Waltz No. 2 (1988)
Recording Cologne, Germany

Trois Valses oubliées
1958

Transcendantal Etudes
Prague, 1956

Piano Concerto No. 1
London Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, 1971

Piano Concerto No. 2/1
London Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, 1971

Piano Concerto No. 2/2
London Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, 1971

Sonata B Minor
Live Recording, 1965

Pensée des morts
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
Moscow, 1957

Andante Lagrimoso
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
Moscow, 1957

In ‘Richter the Enigma’, Nina Dorliac relates that Richter did not have a belcanto when he was young. This recording—among many others—shows that she was absolutely wrong!

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Richter Plays Chopin

Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, op. 21
USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Evgeny Svetlanov, 1966

Svjatoslav Richter in Moscow
Ballade, Nocturnes, Scherzo, Preludes, Waltz, Etudes, 1950

Svjatoslav Richter in Kiev
The Four Ballades and Etudes, 1959-60

Svjatoslav Richter in Tokyo
13 Préludes, 1979

Svjatoslav Richter in London
Études (op 10, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 12; op. 25, 5, 6, 8 11)

Barcarolle, op. 60
Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Live, June 1966

Scherzi, op. 20, 31, 39, 54
Studio Recording, Munich, 25-30, VII, 1977

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Richter’s Genius

Richter's Initials
Richter’s Initials

Essay by Peter Fritz Walter

Introduction

It was when first listening to Richter’s interpretations of Beethoven, Haydn, Liszt and Rachmaninov back in the 1970s that I got the idea to start genius research, which was an endeavor that filled me with passion and joy, to this very day.

The idea was novel to me. As long as I had been listening to Wilhelm Kempff, Glenn Gould, Claudio Arrau, or Martha Argerich, I took their brilliance and bravura for granted, not reflecting beyond the horizon of musical performance.

This changed on the spot with listening to Richter! It was as if destiny had opened me a door to a new realm of understanding life intelligently … and I was intrigued, and set to myself the project to investigate what makes the difference of Richter to the crowd of pianists out there?

I knew he was a painter, too, and that as a repetitor he has had an experience with listening to other musicians that many pianists (unfortunately) do not possess, focusing too much on their own bravura, thereby focusing almost narcissistically on their own ego and personality. Richter was incredible as a chamber musician, with his excellent sight reading ability, and his devotion to musical content, rather than his own person.

But my interest was not that of a musical critic, nor was it the musings of a musicologist. I wanted to know what human genius is really about, and my early intuitions with Richter’s genius was later confirmed by my in-depth studies of the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and others.

—See Peter Fritz Walter, Creative Genius: Four-Quadrant Creativity in the Lives and Works of Leonardo da Vinci, Wilhelm Reich, Albert Einstein, Svjatoslav Richter, and Keith Jarrett (Great Minds Series), Newark, Sirius-C Media Galaxy LLC, 2014.

It was his musical performance—and the very idea of a performance at that—which changed my life forever. I began to sense in his music, besides the logic and intelligence that shines from all his interpretations, extramusical content, a deep philosophy, an innate understanding of poetics, of drama, of great literature, of art as such.

The very idea of musical interpretation seen as a performance began to estrange me; in fact, it reminded me of the fact that at our conservatory, students would talk not of playing the piano but working the piano. Most of them, as I had seen and heard it, were caught in an outright mechanical attitude vis-à-vis the piano, and musical interpretation. That is, then, later the breed of standard pianists around the world, who can hammer down every piece; only that the music sounds like an etude, while with Richter even a bad etude would sound like music …, only that he refused to play etudes, except the Chopin Etudes

My essay is in four chapters, the first three rather short, and the last one being the essence of it all, quite extensive, and to the point. It was not easy to explicate those details, and I could do that only in my later years, and having heard and seen dozens of pianists in my life …

Genius Research Applied

When I started my genius research at that same time, I began to reflect about what it was that made Richter so different from other pianists of that time, and generally, of all times? I began to wonder how his unique genius of musical performance could be put in words?

I noticed that Richter’s genius was not just musical performance in the strict sense of the word. It is noteworthy to remind the conversation Richter had in Tokyo with the director of a piano house that is featured in Monsaingeon’s movie, and where, upon the amused remark that it was notorious that ‘Maestro Richter does not seem to like pianos very much,’ he replied that indeed he liked music more, and upon the witty reply that Maestro Richter seems to not like pianists very much either, he replied, he in fact liked musicians more. These little funny interjections must be understood right in context so that the reader may see their significance, for, to be true, they were not meant as jokes!

—Bruno Monsaingeon, Svjatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 and Richter – The Enigma / L’Insoumis / Der Unbeugsame, NVC Arts 1998 (DVD)

There is more than a grain of truth in the rumors about Richter the piano house director mentioned. Richter has been reproached often in his musical career that he didn’t care about the quality of pianos he performed on, and this is true,he really did not care. He had fostered, as he voiced it in the movie, the magic belief that once he worried about those peripheral issues, those concerns could sidetrack him from his strong focus on the music he was going to interpret.

It is also true that Richter did not think high of most pianists, even avoided them, and in his circle of friends were no noted pianists of the time, but rather, art dealers, painters, cinematographers, poets, and high-rank composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten. His visits to Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz in New York City, during his US tour, as they are featured in the movie, were formal and rather pointed events, while Richter had no enduring friendship with any of these and other great pianists of the time. In fact, in Richter’s Notebooks, many biting remarks can be found about a number of pianists and their way to slop over details in musical scores, and a famous and very talented musician is among them, Glenn Gould. He seemed to be angered that Gould did not obey Bach’s repetition marks in the Goldberg Variations, while Gould was a great fan of Richter.

Fact is that Richter did not head toward a pianistic career at all. He wanted to become a painter during his adolescence, and was a painter actually all through his life, and his paintings were often shown in exhibitions in Russia, France and later also in the United States and Australia. It is important to retain this detail here, for it is essential for understanding Richter’s genius, which was more than just musical. When Richter started to work at the Odessa Opera as a repetitor, at the age of fifteen, his motivation was primarily to make some money and get on his own feet. For it has to be seen that just a year before, Richter’s father was killed by Russian nationalists in Odessa, who mistook him for a ‘German spy,’ and Richter might have wanted to contribute to the household income.

Richter did not see a career perspective yet in the musical domain. He was not yet sure of himself at that time; after all he was still a youngster. That was in 1930. Four years later, Richter gave his first recital to a greater audience in a business club in Odessa, while he has given many small recitals within the larger family, and as a child already for peers, but that were not meeting the expectations of his father, a German pianist. Richter’s mother, however, from a noble Russian family, insisted that no strict guidance should be imposed upon Svjatoslav; his mother in fact trusted her son’s innate genius.

No Prodigal Son, and No Prodigy

In an interview with Johannes Schaaf, a German filmmaker, in the 1970s, which I watched on German television, Richter explained he had benefited from his parents never forcing him to practice the piano, giving him freedom for the gradual unfolding of his talents and interests. This had built in him the doggedness, and self-confidence to endure those first years until he was finally, and very gradually, recognized.

It is important to understand that Richter’s career was fundamentally different from the careers of child prodigies, as for example Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Ravel or Arrau, for various reasons.

Richter, contrary to musical child prodigies, was not a musical genius only, but rather on the line of multivectorial geniuses like Leonardo, or Einstein, for he was not only a musician, but also a poet, a painter, a philosopher, and, while this is never mentioned anywhere, an actor.

He was stunningly honest in the interviews with Bruno Monsaingeon, telling the audience that what he basically learnt from his mentor, Heinrich Neuhaus, was to ‘present himself in a theatrical manner,’ posing in a way to attract the attention of the audience before he ever played the first note of the recital.

These remarks were not said in a joking manner, but Richter, who was naturally a rather shy and remote person, obviously needed this boost of his self-confidence to fully realize his genius in musical performance.

Richter and Neuhaus

Richter and Neuhaus
Richter and Neuhaus

But these events are rather insignificant because they were not yet based upon a decision.

Given Richter’s multiple talents, and his firm roots in fine art, painting, and drawing, as well as his early exposition to the theater, the Opera in Odessa, where he had worked as a repetitor. Thus, he was not clear about his mission and his life’s work until he took the somewhat surprising decision to take formal piano lessons with Heinrich Neuhaus in Moscow. And Neuhaus to comment in his book:

‘It has to be seen that in the normal course of events the pianists that teachers of his rank accept for their master classes have gone through a full-cycle pianistic education. Richter had done nothing of that.’

—Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing, London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1973, first published in 1958

He had played in night clubs and and accompanied fanciful opera singers in what was considered, at the time, a ‘provincial’ town. While Neuhaus accepted him, immediately sensing his genius, Richter’s pianistic career was all but taken for granted.

Despite the fact that his intellectual, musical and manual capacities were enormous, Richter’s fate was not an easy one. He was meeting with lots of indifference, even reject in his early years. He goes over all that in a light mood in Monsaingeon’s movie, but we must put ourselves in his skin for a moment to feel the hurt and frustration he suffered for more of a decade of his career. Audiences were reacting with estrangement, because Richter’s play was markedly different from all they had heard before.

In Prague, for example, where later he was adored like a god, he first encountered blatant reject and ridicule. In London, in 1961, despite his brilliant Carnegie Hall début just a year before, he really faced a hostile reaction from British critics until his memorable performance of the Liszt concertos later that year.

When fame hit Richter, it hit him strongly, totally, and virtually until his leaving the earth plane. While he ended his life with a short period of reduced memory and sight, and suffered from a nasty distortion of his musical pitch, he was productive all through his life cycle.

More importantly, it is significant to see how focused he was once he had made his choice. Charles Munch, Eugene Ormandy, Pierre Boulez, to name only these, from his closer circle of friends, tried repeatedly to get him into conducting, but he is said to have resigned with the statement: ‘I do not like three things, analysis, power, and conducting.’

But of course, from a career consultant’s point of view, Richter was right on spot, as when there is no real need to change one’s main orientation, one should not do so,as this will lead to energy dissipation and a confusion of one’s main audience. Richter did it right.

Details of Richter’s Genius

Now, coming to the essential, I shall give some detail to my claim that Richter was an unheard-of musical genius, and perhaps the best pianist of the 20th century. First of all, let me say that Richter’s genius was such that it can’t be described with just listing a few qualities of his play, as this can be done with every good and talented musician. There is much more, and there is a level of complexity in it all that I haven’t encountered with any other musician I know and have studied.

Before I go more in detail, I would like to shortly outline the main characteristics that describe Richter’s musical and pianistic genius. I will then try to explain every single characteristic and give at least one musical example.

I would list these elements as follows, while this list is non-exhaustive:

  • Innate and intuitive musical perception and accordingly, an extraordinaryaccuracy of style, uniqueness and cultural embeddedness of a musical composition;
  • An almost magical correctness of taste, which gives to each composition rendered a feel of striking authenticity and originality, whereby observing the composer’s intention in most meticulous detail;
  • The perception of a musical piece in whole patterns, not single notes or measures, that is, in larger comprehensively linked units that makes that the listener perceives the musical structure ‘from a bird perspective;’
  • musical intelligence that with astounding clarity discards out lesser original compositions, focusing only on masterworks, combined with a strict eclecticism which can serve as a guide for the music student, and wide audiences;
  • The ability to play a wide range of chamber music without previous in-depth study of the piano score, with a perfect sight-reading ability that was so accurate as to the slightest details that it has dumbfounded musicians and lay people alike;
  • The ability to play large musical compositions, such as whole operas or symphonies, from the conductor’s score, whereby transposing the keys for the various instruments in real time, and transcribing the whole complex structure for the piano, while playing it;
  • An astounding natural sense for rhythm that was so accurate that critics spoke about Richter’s feeling of ‘time’ especially when he performed Baroque music; contrary to many other pianists, he has never been found to accelerate a piece unduly, or to slow it down through rubati, except such was written in the score;
  • One of the largest musical memories known in the entire history of musical performance, enabling him at the peak of his career to play about eighty entire musical programs, or roughly 160 hours of uninterrupted music from memory;
  • A faculty of concentration so high, combined with a physical endurance so great that he was able to practice ten to twelve hours for a recital, and then, in the evening, did the recital, without a moment of sleep in between;
  • The ability to be undisturbed by even major noise, turmoil or shortcomings during a recital, enduring it stoically, while continuing to play, rendering his best performances not in the studio but in live recitals, which is why most of his recordings are live cuts from recitals, and only exceptionally, studio recordings;
  • Fate has given Richter the best of the best in terms of physical constitution. He had hands so large as before him only Anton Rubinstein, Ferruccio Busoni and Sergei Rachmaninov, able to grasp a twelfth; large hands alone, however, do not make a great pianist. Richter had an unbelievable speed in wrist positioning combined with an accurate, never-failing safety for underarm transport, that is ultimately facilitated by strong and relaxed shoulder and spine muscles;
  • Richter had what I only can call a ‘Shakespearean’ appearance, which came from his natural attraction to acting and theater; this talent was hardly ever mentioned in any of his various biographies, but it was obvious to me when I saw him playing Szymanowski in the Salle Gaveau in Paris, back in 1982.

Innate and Intuitive Musical Perception

To begin with, I was positively intrigued when reading in Neuhaus’ book The Art of Piano Playing (1958/1973) that my view about Richter’s genius coincided with what Neuhaus, his teacher, had thought about him. It was among other details the fact that Richter had a faculty of conception of a musical composition that I would call ‘immediate, total and holistic.’ It did not surprise me to read in that book that questions of musical perception or taste had never been a subject in the teaching relation Neuhaus-Richter, simply because Richter’s perception of a musical piece was innate and so absolute and to a point one could only agree or disagree. But the matter is more complex, as Richter not only grasped with a never-failing intuition the musical piece in its absoluteness, in its uniqueness, but he also embedded it in a space of culture where it belongs because its composer lived in a certain time and space that is defined by musical history.

Correctness of Taste

And here is where taste comes in. What is taste? It’s not really something that can’t be measured. Richter relates in Richter the Enigma that Maria Yudina, shortly after Russia’s entering World War II, played a Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in a public performance like a war march, and upon Richter’s question after the concert why she did that, she replied, almost angry about the question:

—But we are at war!

Richter recounts that with a sense of humor, but it was not with humor that Yudina, on her part, related to the public she thought that Richter was ‘a Rachmaninov pianist.’

This was not taken as a compliment by Richter, but as an insult, and it must be one for a performer who has covered almost the entire piano repertoire, including all musical styles that ever were used for composing piano music.

Richter had a sense of taste so correct, so adequate for each and every musical style and epoch that I consider him unique with this faculty in the whole of musical performance history.

For example, many pianists, when they play Schubert, make his music sound like a smaller Beethoven, instead of a fully grown Schubert, or they play Rachmaninov as if it was a somewhat ‘russianized’ vintage of Chopin. To have a sense of taste means that one is able to let the music sound ‘authentic’, which is a very complex task.

To accomplish this task, it’s surely not enough to be a pianist alone, to have a good piano technique, or to be able to master technical difficulties. It is required that one be a musician, an artist, a poet, and a philosopher to understand this level of complexity.

That means one must realize a consistent approach for not just a single piano piece, but with an intention for rendering a whole composer, with all his or her oeuvres consistently and authentically. I do not know any pianist over the whole of musical history who had this faculty, except Richter. And the composers themselves are for obvious reasons the least gifted for rendering the works of other composers. When you hear how Rachmaninov played a Chopin Scherzo and you heard Richter play Chopin’s Scherzi, you will prefer listening to Richter’s interpretation, except for reasons of musical and autobiographical research.

Perception of Whole Patterns

Every piece Richter plays, even if he plays it slower than other pianists, seems to be faster to the listener, subjectively, because Richter lets us see the piece as if from a ‘bird perspective,’ so that the single detail is imbedded in all its beauty in a greater unit, like a pattern, or movement.

This becomes especially obvious with Sonatas, where Richter, contrary to many pianists, always plays all the repetitions,and yet, one doesn’t feel bored a single moment. In the contrary, the repetitions become organic when Richter plays them, and one feels that there is a logic in repeating a part.

Glenn Gould, who, interestingly enough, is one of the pianists who most often skipped repetitions, even in his famous rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations,relates in Richter the Enigma (1998), I quote from my typescript:

Glenn Gould

  • I always believed that it’s possible to divide musical performers into two categories, those who seek to exploit the instrument they use, and those who do not. In the first category, if we believe the history books, one can find a place for such legendary characters as Liszt and Paganini, as well as any number of allegedly demonic virtuosi of more recent vintage. 
  • That category belongs essentially to musicians who are determined to make us aware of their relationship with their instrument, whatever it happens to be. They allow that relationship to become the focus of attention. 
  • The second category, on the other hand, includes musicians who try to bypass the whole question of performing mechanism, to create the illusion of a direct link between themselves and the particular musical score, and therefore help the listener to achieve a sense of involvement, not the with performance per se but rather with the music itself. 
  • And I think that in our time there is no better example of that second kind of musician than Svjatoslav Richter.      
  • What Svjatoslav Richter does in fact is insert between the listener and the composer his own enormously powerful personality, as a kind of conduit, and as he does this, we gain the impression that we’re discovering the work anew and, often, from a quite different perspective than that to which we were accustomed.
  • The first time I heard him play was at the Moscow Conservatory, in May 1957, and he opened his program with the last of Schubert’s sonatas, the Sonata in B Flat Major. 
  • It’s a very long sonata, one of the longest ever written, in fact, and Richter played it at what I believe to be the slowest tempo I’ve ever heard, thereby making it a good deal longer, needless to say. I think, at this point, it’s appropriate to confess two things. 
  • The first is that, heretical though it may be, I’m not really addicted to most of Schubert’s music. I find myself usually unable to come to terms with the repetitive structures involved, and I find that I get very restless and squirm already when I have to sit through one of the longer Schubert essays. Well, what happened in fact was that, for the next hour I was in a state that I can only compare to a hypnotic trance.
  • All of my prejudices about Schubert’s repetitive structures were forgotten; musical details which I’d previously considered to be ornamental were given the appearance of organic elements. In fact I can remember many of those details to this day. And it seemed to me that I was witnessing a union of two supposedly irreconcilable qualities, intense analytical calculation revealed through a spontaneity equivalent to improvisation. 
  • And I realized at that moment, as I have on many subsequent occasions when I have been listening to Richter’s recordings, that I was in the presence of one of the most powerful communicators the world of music has produced in our time. / End of Quote.

Musical Intelligence and Eclecticism

Richter has been a guide to me, in the whole of my musical development. I simply followed his selective instinct for the music I wanted to play. In every case when I was in doubt why he didn’t play other pieces of one same collection, I listened to those pieces rendered by other pianists—and was regularly disappointed!

I would have wasted my time had I practiced any of them. On the other hand, Richter played music that was forgotten or that was not popular at his time, thereby rendering a great service to many a composer, even a genius such as Prokofiev. For example, Richter relates in Richter the Enigma that Prokofiev’s 5th Piano Concerto had never been a big public success, which is why Prokofiev asked Richter to perform it, and the performance was a resounding success. Heinrich Neuhaus relates in The Art of Piano Playing (1958/1973):

  • Richter does not confine himself to playing Soviet, Russian and Western classical music, but he repeatedly performs in various cities of the USSR the whole of Bach’s Wohltemperiertes Klavier (apart from other Bach compositions). He has literally brought back to life the marvelous Schubert sonatas and some Weber sonatas that for some reason had been forgotten, and has played a multitude of seldom heard pieces by Liszt, Schumann, Beethoven; in short his concerts not only give pleasure to a wide audience but also open before it new horizons and bring before it excellent little-known compositions, thus constantly broadening and raising the level of artistic culture and musical experience. (Id., 204)

Impeccable Sight-Reading Capability

With regard to performing chamber music, I have often observed that even manually lesser gifted pianists are able to accompany singers or play a part in a chamber orchestra simply because they are excellent sight readers. Heinrich Neuhaus relates in The Art of Piano Playing (1958/1973) about Richter’s sight-reading capabilities:

  • When sight-reading a piece for the first time—whether a piano composition, an opera, a symphony, anything—he [Richter] immediately gives an almost perfect rendering, both from the point of view of content and from the point of view of technical skill (in this case, one and the same thing). (Id., 8)

The Ability to Play Complex Scores

The ability to play an orchestral score on the piano, while on the spot transposing the voices for the two hands is a skill taught in conductor’s classes, not a skill that pianists usually possess or practice. The pianist usually plays a score that is set for the two hands, with the upper row representing the right-hand part, and the lower row, the left-hand part. That means that if a pianist is not able to play an orchestral score at sight, he would have to rewrite it, note for note, on a new set of sheets, transposing all the voices accordingly. This is a work usually done by musical arrangers, who are professionals in their own right, and who are seldom good pianists.

Now, after this short introduction, the reader may get an idea how incredibly complex it must be to do this transcription in real-time. This is still more complex when, as in Richter’s case, the score is not just a symphony, but an opera, where the pianist has to let one musical line ‘sing’ as if it was standing above all the others. There is about nothing in the whole of musical performance that is as complex, difficult and monumental as playing whole operas on the piano, as Richter did in his younger years, when he performed the entire Wagner on the piano in the Musical Academy in Moscow.

Natural Sense for Rhythm

Richter’s sense of rhythm is so accurate and so natural that it gives a sense of magic to each and every musical piece he performs. There are many striking examples in the whole of his discography, and I may just mention a couple of them here.

The first example that comes to mind is Richter’s famous rendering of Schubert’sWanderer Fantasie that is so unique, so monumental, so dramatic and so accurate that it has been acclaimed to be the best rendering of this musical piece in the whole of musical performance history.

I fully agree. Among the many qualities that Richter’s play shows in this difficult-to-play, long and complicated piece, his sense for the rhythmic structure of the composition is perhaps the most striking. The pulse is set with the first tempestuous measures that are like a sweeping storm set in music, but subsequently this pulse is variated and modified throughout the piece, and at each transformation,

Richter is able to set a new pulse that however is related to the former in a way that the whole is more than an assembly of its parts, and comes over as intrinsically organic, natural and powerful.

The second example is Bach’s D Minor Prelude from the 1st Volume of Bach’sWell-Tempered Clavier (BWV 851), which in Richter’s rendering gets an expression of eternity and a quality of ‘ultimate-truth’ through the flow of the triplets in the right hand against the simple eights in the left. I played this piece many times and found out that this magical ‘flow character’ comes about only when you are able to keep the rhythm with ultimate precision without however being stiff about it because then, it would sound mechanical.

The third example is how Richter plays the Allegro from the Second Handel Suitein F Major. He plays this piece faster than all the recordings I know of it, but with an incredible precision of rhythm and musical detail, and here, of course, his large hands helped him to master some difficulties that come up when you play it that fast. But Richter’s rendering gives to that piece a sense of humor and a boyscoutish vitality that is almost hilarious, but anyway uplifting and spirited.

The magic here is the combination of speed with masterful handling of the rhythm. What happens to most pianists is that the faster they play, the more they tend to ‘run away’ with the piece, which destroys the rhythmic flow.

Musical Memory

I have already given an idea of Richter’s colossal repertoire and his astounding memory. It should be noted here that memory decreases with age and this was true in Richter’s case as well, which may be one of the reasons why later in life, he used to play with the score.

However, in all the best years of his career, Richter’s memory was simply gigantic, and what’s perhaps noteworthy is that it was not just his memory for music, but in general, for all details in life.

In Richter the Enigma, Richter reveals with a sense of humor that he even remembers the complicated Russian names of all the eight ‘strange birds’ (old-fashioned virgin sisters) for whom he had played when he was a boy. He also remembered the precise day and year of that performance, and where it was, how the house was looking like, what kind of furniture was around, what had been on every table, what color the tablecloth had, and so on and so forth. He also revealed in that interview that he had suffered much in his life through the fact that he simply could not forget anything, even if he wanted to.

Faculty of Concentration & Physical Endurance

It is noteworthy that Richter always lived a very simple life, with regular walks in nature, preferably in forests, that he was a very strongly built man, and that he did not spoil his fitness through a ‘luxury’ lifestyle as so many other pianists, among them, the perhaps most notorious example, Franz Liszt.

It has been written often that Richter had an unusual faculty of concentration and physical endurance, and as this is almost general knowledge, I would like to give just two examples here. When he rehearsed Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasie, he was not sure which piano he preferred, as he had both a Steinway and a Bösendorfer at his disposition. Early in the morning, at the start of the recording session, Richter decided for the Steinway and recorded the whole fantasy. But at the end of the afternoon, when the technicians were about to leave the studio, Richter was suddenly skeptical as to the Steinway being the right piano for this music, and decided for the Bösendorfer. Thus, he continued rehearsing and played the whole piece once again on the Bösendorfer, until late in the night.

The other example is my own meeting with Richter and Nina Dorliac in Paris, which revealed that Richter had rehearsed entire 12 hours before the recital, as Dorliac told me. It it noteworthy that in the movie, Richter defended the view that he did not practice more than about three hours per day, but Dorliac contradicted this allegation vehemently. At any rate, if he wanted to, he could do it, he was physically able to do marathons of that kind.

The Ability to be Undisturbed

Richter relates in the movie that during Stalin’s funeral, when he was in midst of his recital, once of a sudden the military orchestra was starting to play, but that he went on playing undisturbed, while being scandalized that such had been done to his art!

In addition, Richter notes with a sense of humor in the interview that during his younger years, he often had to play in the war, when bombs were falling all around in the city, but that that had never really disturbed him.

In all of Richter’s recordings from Russia, probably because of the rough climate, there is an almost unbearable background noise of people coughing in all possible ways. Richter never showed the slightest disturbance about that.

Physical Constitution and Size of Hands

Neuhaus explains in his book that he put a stress on technique not in the usual sense but in the sense of the old Greek term τεχνε, which is more than just a form of mechanical practice to play a scale or a sequence of fast octaves.

Neuhaus reminds that this word actually means ‘art,’ which implies that any improvement of the technique, if done correctly, serves art, and not itself. Thus, the understanding of a work of art and the technique involved in that process are intricately intertwined; this means that a brilliant performer cannot not care about technique, but at the same time the technique is never an end in itself, but serves art. He relates that when Richter played him Prokofiev’s 9th piano sonata, which the composer dedicated to Richter, he could not help noticing that one very difficult, polyphonic and very lively bit … came off particularly well, so he asked Richter how he had managed to play these few hairy measures so well, and Richter had replied to him: ‘I practiced this bit without interruption for two hours.’

Regarding Richter’s hands, Neuhaus relates in The Art of Piano Playing (1958/1973) that Richter, while performing Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy, had a clear advantage for rendering the final 47 measures after the both-hand scale up, where the melody, in this triumphant finale, is to be played forte and fortissimo with the forth and fifth finger while both hands are extremely busy with fast chord and octave play. Neuhaus writes that all pianists but those with huge hands had to ‘cheat’ here in one or the other way for coping with the strong tension in the hands.

A Man of Drama

This is a remark of my own, that I haven’t found in any of the biographical material about Richter and is the impression I got of this man when facing him myself, back in 1982, during the Paris recital. I had a spontaneous association, when I saw him, with Shakespeare and was not surprised that he played Beethoven’s Sonata, The Tempest (op. 31/2) so well, as this sonata is said to have been inspired by Shakespeare’s drama of that same title.

I got a felt sense, when I saw Richter, that if he had not done a career in music, he would have become an actor.

I was almost sure about it, and his way to walk onto the stage, and leave the stage was so unique, his way of bowing was so unusual, and the grace with which he took the flowers handed over to him after the recital was so natural that I couldn’t help thinking that if this genius was not to become one in the musical world, he would have become a genius in theater and film. And in so far it’s not a mere coincidence that he made his debut not as a prodigy pianist, but as a repetitor in the Odessa Opera House.

Richter had a strong talent also for the other arts and in this respect he was much more than a pianist, much more even than a musician. In my view, he was what in olden times was called a man of letters; this is how he came over to me in that encounter, as a true philosopher.

I respectfully nicknamed him ‘Socrates of the Piano.’

Featured

Documentaries

Richter the Enigma

by Bruno Monsaingeon, Arte, 1998

Part 1/2 (DVD Face 1)

Part 2/2 (DVD Face 2)

Richter in Tours

by Johannes Schaaf

This is a documentary made by the German filmmaker Johannes Schaaf, portraying Richter at his annual summer concerts at the Grange de Meslay, in the Touraine, France. It’s in German language and the length is 35 min.

In some respects, and for the comparatively short length, I find this movie more revealing and emotionally insightful than the long documentary made by Bruno Monsaingeon. I have watched it over and over again and it seems to talk to me …

Featured

A Retrospective

Richter's Initials
Richter’s Initials

Svjatoslav Richter was a Russian-German pianist of world-renown. Richter is widely recognized as having been the greatest pianist of the 20th century; some consider him to be the greatest pianist of all times. Richter was known for his immense repertoire that encompassed, with few exceptions, the entire pianistic literature. His legendary perfection and the almost unbearable electric tension, catharsis and poetic transformation that his interpretations triggered within his audience.
—Bruno Monsaingeon

Richter is one of the most powerful communicators the world of music has produced in our time.
—Glenn Gould

Richter is an extraordinary phenomenon. The enormity of his talent staggers and enraptures.
—Dmitri Shostakovich

Richter is a gigantic musician. He plays the piano and the piano responds. He sings with the piano.
—Arthur Rubinstein

His personality was greater than the possibilities offered to him by the piano, broader than the very concept of complete mastery of the instrument.
—Pierre Boulez

A Retrospective

My interest in Svjatoslav Teofilovich Richter (1915-1997) rose up the very year of my entering law school, 1975. It was that year, when I was twenty years old, that marked my deep marriage with music for the decades to come. In these early years, coinciding with my late starting of piano performance, meeting with Richter’s immense repertoire was a deeply moving and ultimately transformative experience.

From 1975 to 1982, I acquired, from the little money I had left at the time, the whole of the available Richter performances on vinyl record. There was a number of them, however, that were sold out not only in Germany and France, but that I could not even order with a wholesale dealer in California where I had surprisingly found a few that had been sold out since long in Europe. In the summer of 1982, I contacted Richter’s concert agent in Munich, Mr. Metaxas, telling him I wanted to give a letter to Maestro Richter, and he pointed me to a recital in Paris, the upcoming month.

In the letter, I was telling Richter of the sad state of affairs regarding the collections of his records available in Germany, France and the United States. Then I went to Paris and attended his Szymanowski recital, yet was unable to meet him as he went to the hotel right after each of the two concerts. Eventually, I talked to Nina Dorliac, his partner, and handed her the letter. She promised me a reply which I never received, yet to my great astonishment, one after one of the sold-out recordings that I had listed in the letter were republished over the coming years.

At that time, I was taking piano lessons with A. S., a professor at Saarland Music Conservatory in Saarbrücken, who was a student of Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Backhaus and Edwin Fischer, a regionally famed pianist. But he was playing only a tiny part of piano repertoire, mostly Mozart and Beethoven, and did not at all appreciate my interest in Russian and French composers. Actually he simply could not play them.

In addition, he lost the score of a piano etude I had composed and given to him for evaluation, and of which I had not made a copy. I took this as the main reason for stopping the rather expensive private lessons with him and continued on my own, simply listening to Richter’s recordings over and over, every day for at least two hours, and slowly, I began to understand what makes the brick and mortar of great musical performance and authentic rendering of musical masterworks.

It turned out I could not possibly have found a better piano teacher, and my progress was astounding everybody around.

Nothing but listening to Richter was the best teaching I could ever have found. Please note that at that time, there was no Internet yet, and Richter was almost never featured on German radio and television, so I had the records alone.

Featured

Presentation

Richter's Initials

Svjatoslav Richter was a Russian-German pianist of world-renown. Richter is widely recognized as having been the greatest pianist of the 20th century; some consider him to be the greatest pianist of all times. Richter was known for his immense repertoire that encompassed, with few exceptions, the entire pianistic literature. His legendary perfection and the almost unbearable electric tension, catharsis and poetic transformation that his interpretations triggered within his audience.
—Bruno Monsaingeon

Richter is one of the most powerful communicators the world of music has produced in our time.
—Glenn Gould

Richter is an extraordinary phenomenon. The enormity of his talent staggers and enraptures.
—Dmitri Shostakovich

Richter is a gigantic musician. He plays the piano and the piano responds. He sings with the piano.
—Arthur Rubinstein

His personality was greater than the possibilities offered to him by the piano, broader than the very concept of complete mastery of the instrument.
—Pierre Boulez

A Retrospective

My interest in Svjatoslav Teofilovich Richter (1915-1997) rose up the very year of my entering law school, 1975. It was that year, when I was twenty years old, that marked my deep marriage with music for the decades to come. In these early years, coinciding with my late starting of piano performance, meeting with Richter’s immense repertoire was a deeply moving and ultimately transformative experience.

From 1975 to 1982, I acquired, from the little money I had left at the time, the whole of the available Richter performances on vinyl record. There was a number of them, however, that were sold out not only in Germany and France, but that I could not even order with a wholesale dealer in California where I had surprisingly found a few that had been sold out since long in Europe. In the summer of 1982, I contacted Richter’s concert agent in Munich, Mr. Metaxas, telling him I wanted to give a letter to Maestro Richter, and he pointed me to a recital in Paris, the upcoming month.

In the letter, I was telling Richter of the sad state of affairs regarding the collections of his records available in Germany, France and the United States. Then I went to Paris and attended his Szymanowski recital, yet was unable to meet him as he went to the hotel right after each of the two concerts. Eventually, I talked to Nina Dorliac, his partner, and handed her the letter. She promised me a reply which I never received, yet to my great astonishment, one after one of the sold-out recordings that I had listed in the letter were republished over the coming years.

At that time, I was taking piano lessons with A. S., a professor at Saarland Music Conservatory in Saarbrücken, who was a student of Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Backhaus and Edwin Fischer, a regionally famed pianist. But he was playing only a tiny part of piano repertoire, mostly Mozart and Beethoven, and did not at all appreciate my interest in Russian and French composers. Actually he simply could not play them.

In addition, he lost the score of a piano etude I had composed and given to him for evaluation, and of which I had not made a copy. I took this as the main reason for stopping the rather expensive private lessons with him and continued on my own, simply listening to Richter’s recordings over and over, every day for at least two hours, and slowly, I began to understand what makes the brick and mortar of great musical performance and authentic rendering of musical masterworks.

It turned out I could not possibly have found a better piano teacher, and my progress was astounding everybody around.

Nothing but listening to Richter was the best teaching I could ever have found. Please note that at that time, there was no Internet yet, and Richter was almost never featured on German radio and television, so I had the records alone.

The Piano Choice

 

Richter had both Steinways, and Bösendorfer pianos, and later in life, he played only on Yamaha grand pianos, and was sponsored by Yamaha, Japan.

Now, let us have a look at this intriguing question. To begin with, let me report an anecdote here. There are both classical and Jazz pianists who swear on Bösendorfer instead of Steinway. Let me mention only the Austrian pianist and Mozart specialist Paul Badura-Skoda and the late Oscar Peterson. (Bösendorfer actually produces two versions of tuning and intonation for their piano, one for classical, especially Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and one for Jazz—the latter version is often played with the grand completely open).

Now the case is especially interesting regarding Svjatoslav Richter who was sponsored by Yamaha in his later years. He had no particular liking for Steinway and the anecdote goes that when recording Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasie back in 1963, he was playing it in on a Steinway first. Then, late in the afternoon, when the studio stuff was about to go home, he changed his mind to record the entire piece again on a Bösendorfer—and asked them to stay until late at night.

He played it in again, that same day, on a Bösendorfer and that was the final version, which he approved and which is one of the most striking proofs of his musical genius and pianistic abilities. It’s a truly monumental take on this extremely difficult piece. I guess that what inspired him to achieve so high was not only his inner mind but also the fantastic piano. You can listen to it here (including score):

Richter Plays Schubert Wanderer Fantasie on Bösendorfer