Sviatoslav Richter - an introduction to his life and work

Sviatoslav Richter, widely regarded as one of the finest Russian pianists of the twentieth century, was born in Zhitomir, in the Ukraine, on March 20, 1915. His father, Theophile, was an organist and gave the young Sviatoslav his early musical training. Richterís mother, Anna, was a talented artist who loved music and was related to the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. The young Richter was essentially self-taught and developed his exceptional technique by playing whatever music he liked. By the age of eight he was playing opera scores, including the music of Richard Wagner. He had the ability to memorize any music at sight.

Richter grew up in Odessa, where his father taught at the Conservatory. Also growing up in Odessa at the same time were Emil Gilels and David Oistrakh, who would later become Richterís chamber-music partner. During these years he was a ďrepetiteur,Ē or rehearsal pianist, in Odessa. His debut as a soloist came on February 19, 1934, at the Odessa House of Engineers. The program included the Chopin Ballade no. 4, Polonaise-fantaisie, and E Major Scherzo, as well as a selection of Nocturnes, Etudes, and Preludes, all difficult pieces. The recital was a great success and Richterís career as virtuoso was under way.

In 1937 Richter left Odessa for Moscow to study with the great pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus. Richter did not take the entrance exam at the Conservatory. He simply asked Neuhaus to teach him. Neuhaus listened to his playing and said, "Here is the pupil for whom I have waited all my life. In my opinion, he is a genius." Neuhaus declared that he had nothing to teach Richter but accepted him as a pupil anyway. On November 26, 1940, while still a student at Moscow Conservatory, Richter made his Moscow debut. Here he gave the first public performance of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 6 and made a highly favorable impression on both the audience and the composer. When Prokofiev completed his Seventh Sonata in 1942, he gave it to Richter for the premiere. Richter learned the piece in only four days, and performed it the following January. Richter also gave the first performances of Prokofievís Eighth and Ninth Sonatas, the last of which was dedicated to Richter.

Richterís first competition victory came in 1945, in the All-Union Contest of Performers. The jury was headed by Dmitri Shostakovich and included Gilels. Richter took first prize. Shostakovich later wrote: "Richter is an extraordinary phenomenon. The enormity of his talent staggers and enraptures. All the phenomena of musical art are accessible to him." Richter went on the win the Stalin Prize in 1949, as well as every kind of official and unofficial recognition from the Soviet government.

In 1945 Richter was accompanist to the Russian soprano Nina Dorliak in a program that included songs by Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev. This was the first meeting in an association that would last the rest of their lives. Richter and Dorliak were never officially married, but they were constant companions. She was the practical counterbalance to his impulsive nature. She would wind his watch for him, remind him of appointments, and manage his professional commitments.

While a juror at the First Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow, Richter was so impressed with Van Cliburnís playing that he awarded Cliburn one hundred points out of a possible ten. Cliburn won, but Richter was never asked to sit on a jury again.

Listeners in the West had their first opportunity to hear Richter through recordings in the 1950s, and his reputation among the cognoscenti grew quickly. When Gilels toured the U.S. in 1955 his response to critics who praised his performances was: "Wait until you hear Richter!" The great impresario Sol Hurok tried to arrange a tour, but it was a few more years before the Soviet government would permit it. During the 1950s Richter toured the Communist countries of Eastern Europe, but it was not until May 1960 that he was allowed to travel to the West, and then only as far as Helsinki. Five months later he made his U.S. debut in Chicago. He played the Brahms Second Concerto, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. A recording was made the following day, which remains in the catalog. His New York debut consisted of a series of seven recitals in ten days at Carnegie Hall in October 1960. The leading piano teacher at the Juilliard School, Rosina Lhevinne, praised it: "Richter is an inspired poet of music Ö an exceptional phenomenon of the twentieth century."

Richter quickly was established in the first rank of performers and was very much in demand for recitals and recordings. He toured the world and performed with major orchestras, but soon decided that he did not want to continue this life style. It was against his nature to make so many commitments years in advance. He preferred to follow his impulse and explore new repertoire.

In 1964 Richter and EMI recording producer Jacques Leiser established an annual festival, the Fetes Musicales en Touraine at Meslay, near Tours. Richter would spend every summer in the French countryside and give many concerts with fellow musicians, including Benjamin Britten, David Oistrakh, and Pierre Fournier. Richter loved France and spent thirty summers there.

In addition to his career as pianist, Richter pursued painting. He produced many splendid watercolors. He also made one appearance as conductor, in 1952. This was the result of a minor injury to a finger. Richter was afraid that he would never play piano again and studied conducting for some weeks. The finger recovered quickly, and after one performance, the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich, Richter returned to the keyboard.

He loved the operas of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi, and often played them on the piano for friends. He disliked the telephone because he could not see the person he was talking to. He also disliked airplanes and preferred to travel by rail or car. But he loved to travel, and in 1986 he set out by car from Moscow to Vladivostok, on the Pacific, and gave concerts in many small towns along the way. During his later years he acquired a reputation for canceling engagements at the last minute, and for playing on very short notice, almost on a whim. In fact, Richter followed his muse and lived a precarious life style. When he needed money he would give a concert.

For most of his life, Richter was an excellent sight-reader and could immediately play pieces he had never seen or heard. After 1980, following an embarrassing memory lapse, he almost always played from the score. In his last years he would go so far as to have all the lights in the recital hall turned off, except for a small lamp on the music stand, so the audience would be completely in the dark. This served to concentrate the listenerís mind on the music.

Richterís last concert was in Lubeck, Germany, at the end of March 1995. He was eighty years old and in poor health. On the program were three Haydn Sonatas and the Beethoven Variations of Max Reger.

Richter died in Moscow on August 1, 1997.

Richterís approach to music is best illustrated by the enormous range of his repertoire. In recital and on recordings he played everything from Bach to Stravinsky and George Gershwin. But he was also very selective. For example, he never played the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff or the Fifth Concerto of Beethoven. In both cases he felt that others had played these pieces so well that he had nothing else to say. He did not play all of the Beethoven Sonatas or all the Chopin Etudes or Rachmaninoff Preludes. At the same time, he was a champion of unpopular works that he felt deserved attention. Perhaps the best examples are the Schubert Sonatas. Richter performed most of these at a time when few pianists did. He also played many of the Sonatas of Josef Haydn, works not commonly heard, to the surprise and delight of his audience.

It is difficult to describe Richterís performing style in a few words. His approach to each piece and each composer was different, out of respect for the music, and his technique changed over the years. His Bach is cool and reserved, while his Liszt is brilliant and fiery. His interpretations of Schumannís music are filled with passion, and his Stravinsky is lively and amusing. There is no consistent slant, and yet his playing is easy to recognize, as it always has great elegance, intelligence, and technical control. In the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Scriabin, or Shostakovich, it is always the voice of the composer that is heard in Richterís playing. No other interpreter is so adaptable and so in touch with the particular spirit of the music.

Though Richter made many studio recordings, the greatest examples of his playing are those taken from performances before an audience. Among these are the incomparable ďPictures at an ExhibitionĒ from Sofia, Bulgaria (despite poor sound quality and a noisy audience), the Scriabin program from Warsaw, and the complete Beethoven Sonatas for Cello and Piano with Rostropovich from Edinburgh. In each case there is a powerful sense of occasion and tension, as Richter works to bring the music to life for his listeners, and succeeds brilliantly. His studio recordings are more polished and precise and hold up well to repeated listening, but they have less excitement and sense of risk.

Richter never held a post at a conservatory and never had any students, at least not in a formal sense. "How can I teach," Richter said, "when I am learning all the time?" He developed close friendships with a number of younger pianists, including Lazar Berman, Andrei Gavrilov, and Zoltan Kocsis, and undoubtedly taught them a great deal. Gavrilov attests to Richterís influence on a whole generation of musicians: "Richter is not simply a great School but a kind of Ďbiofieldí in which one feels absolutely different."

Sviatoslav Richter also educated a generation of listeners around the world with his interpretations and his choice of repertoire. He was a unique and unpredictable artist who challenged his audiences and attracted a large and loyal following. In fact, his reputation continues to grow. A recent film by Bruno Monsaingeon entitled "Richter: LíInsoumis" (or "The Enigma" in English) has presented Richterís art and the story of his life to the world.

- Paul Geffen

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This page was last updated on 19 February 2001.

Copyright © 1999, 2001 by Paul Geffen