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;’
- A 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:
- 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.
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.’