Heinrich Neuhaus on Richter


by Heinrich Neuhaus

Our country is rich in excellent pianists: Vladimir Sofronitsky, Emil Gilels, Lev Oborin, Yakov Zak, Maria Grinberg, Maria Yudina, and in the younger generation: Dmitri Bashkirov, Yevgeny Malinin and others. There are too many to name and all of them are different. To me the question: "Who's best?" which usually intrigues the general public and is precisely why people throng to all kinds of competitions, seems an idle one. Who's "best" - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms? Pushkin, Dante, Goethe or Shakespeare? Raphael, Velazquez, El Greco or Titian? Frankly, I don't know. In the world of physical reality we can positively state that Elbrus is the highest peak in the Caucasus and Mont Blanc the highest in the Alps. These things can be measured.

Take the races: horse No. 1 beats horse No. 2 by a quarter of a head. This is an actual happening and can be measured (although I could never understand why this "quarter of a head" should rouse the spectators to such a pitch of excitement). But how can we measure accurately the qualitative differences of phenomena in the spiritual world, how can we determine their "height" as we determine the height of Elbrus or Gauri Sankar? For art is perceived not only intellectually ("measurably") but also emotionally, or in other words "non-rationally". The emotional approach to art is not a debatable subject because of the famous maxim that "tastes differ". (Personally, I think it's most debatable since tastes can be good or bad.)

It is precisely because, until now, it has been useless to try and argue about tastes, that it is so impossibly difficult to determine who was the best pianist, the best violinist, or the best singer, in any particular era of world culture. Personally, I think that if I were to hear the playing of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin, or the singing of Glinka, I would consider them "better" -- or to put it simply, I would love it more than the playing of Liszt or Paganini, those dazzling, stupendous geniuses, the founders of our present-clay interpretative art.

Here I have at last "given away" my own taste (which, of course, does not have to be shared by those who think and feel differently). And in so doing I have led up to the subject of my article: Svyatoslav Richter. But just one more short digression. In all ages, art was created by collectives of talented, brilliant people, and no matter how carefully we may examine and perceive each one of them as separate individuals, we cannot for a minute forget our overall impression and understanding of the epoch, the time, the social character and social conditionality of the given phenomenon is part of the whole. Figuratively speaking, we cannot draw a mental picture of Elbrus or Devdorak without imagining the Caucasus as a whole. Therefore, such summary and, on closer inspection, not overaccurate definitions as "classicism", "romanticism", "modernism" and so on, are quite lawful.

In our present-day reality, with its incredibly developed interpretative art, the significance of the collective, its decisive meaning, is a thought that comes to mind most insistently. Whereas in the nineteenth century it was still possible to say that Liszt was the only pianist, in this day and age it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to call any living pianist that. This is where "taste" comes into its own. And there are as many more different tastes now as there are more pianists than before.

One of these tastes is my own. And my taste (which I could give a rather sound ideological basis) tells me: I know and like, appreciate and respect at least a score of splendid modern pianists, but my feelings and my reasoning tell me: still, Svyatoslav Richter is the first among his peers. A happy combination of a mighty (super-mighty!) spirit with depth, purity of soul (chastity!) and consummate skill, is indeed a unique phenomenon. The popularity he enjoys with both general and "select" audiences, and the admiration his playing invariably evokes, are well known to all. Allowing that this phenomenon needs an explanation, how can we explain it? I shall repeat in simpler terms what I have said above. In the first place, this is explained by his tremendous creative power, by the striking, harmonious combination of those qualities which are commonly known as "intellect", "soul" and "heart" - and finally by his gigantic virtuoso talent. In his head, comparable to the majestic domes of Bramante and Michelangelo, all music, all the beautiful music is cradled as the Child is cradled in the arms of Rafael's Madonna.

Whether he is playing Bach or Shostakovich, Beethoven or Scriabin, Schubert or Debussy, the listener seems to hear the living, resurrected composer, and becomes completely immersed in his unique, enormous world. And all of it breathes the "Richter spirit", all of it is infused with his inimitable genius for penetrating the innermost secrets of the music.

Only a pianist whose genius is a match for the composer's, a pianist who is the composer's brother, comrade and friend, can play like that.

I cannot help repeating here what I have said in my article "Composer-Performer" dedicated to Sergei Prokofiev (please forgive me my lack of modesty): there are wonderful performers who do not manifest their creativity, although potentially-if they did not dedicate themselves wholly to interpreting the music of others they could be outstanding composers. Figuratively speaking, they resemble a woman who might have been a splendid mother and had lovely children, but who denies herself all this because she gives all her love, all her attention, and all her strength to the children of others, to her adopted children. I must confess that when I was writing this I meant Richter in the first place. And this is the secret of his all-embracing talent. His own musical world, unrealised and unborn, is akin to the world of the great musicians he plays. I know what I'm saying because I am familiar with his childhood and boyhood compositions and I have heard his superb improvisations.

Incidentally, Richter is not just a musician, he is also a most gifted artist who has drawn and painted a lot without ever having studied professionally. Some of our most esteemed artists have told me that if he had devoted his life to painting, he would have attained the same heights as he has attained as a pianist.

I have only mentioned this to throw some light on the mystery of his genius. He is as much a man of seeing as he is of hearing, and this is a rather rare combination. For him all music is filled with images which are quite original sometimes. For instance he once said that the third part of Prokofiev's Second Concerto made him think of "the dragon devouring children" (!), and that the first part of Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata represented "Industrialisation".

Not long ago, listening to Schumann's novelettes following Haydn's Sonata in C minor at the House of Scientists, I couldn't help thinking that one talks so much about style as if style were a thing apart from the given composition, the given composer. Style is merely a name. When Richter began to play Schumann after playing Haydn, everything changed - it was a different piano, a different sound, a different rhythm, a different character of expression, and the change was so easy to understand: that was Haydn, and this was Schumann, and Richter had succeeded in conveying with the utmost clarity not just the features of each composer but the features of their epoch as well. This is then the "universality" of which I wrote in my book (on the art of piano playing) and which, I think, is the pianist's highest achievement.

In a brief article it is impossible to describe, even sketchily, so great an event in modern art as Richter's playing.

In the course of his concert career he has played a great number of Mozart sonatas; the whole of Bach's Wohltemperiertes Clavier, his suites, fantasias and toccatas; many of Beethoven's sonatas, variations, rondos, bagatelles, and other pieces; the Second Sonata of Brahms and his "miscellany" of intermezzos and capriccios; Schumann's sonatas, symphonic studies, his humoresque, and innumerable other pieces; nearly all the sonatas of Schubert and his fantasy, Chopin - unfortunately omitting his Second and Third sonatas - and Prokofiev. He has given recitals devoted entirely to Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Chaikovsky and Liszt. He has played the concertos of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms (the Second Concerto in B flat major is quite unforgettable), Schumann, Grieg, Franck, Rachmaninov, Chaikovsky, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Bartok. And finally, Shostakovich's preludes and fugues, Szymanowski's sonatas and Poem, and Moussorgsky's unforgettable Pictures from an Exhibition! In fact it is impossible to enumerate all that he has done!

I have had the good fortune, together with many others, to hear Richter at home. lie played for us the operas of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Debussy, and Schrecker, and the symphonies of Mahler, Mvaskovsky and others. I'm not sure if this "music-making" did not impress me more than his recitals. What a waste of a conductor! What a pity that he hasn't had his say! My ardent desire, my hope, is that one day he'll delight us with symphonies, overtures and operas and who better to conduct them than he himself!

He possesses in great measure that which is usually called a feeling for form, a mastery of time and its rhythmic structure, a sense of balance and harmony stemming from the very depths of a classical disposition. In this lies his greatest power, the main quality that makes one dream of hearing him conduct an orchestra. His singular ability to grasp the whole and at the same time miss none of the smallest details of a composition suggests a comparison with an eagle who from his great height can see as far as the horizon and yet single out the tiniest detail of the landscape. We have before us an imposing mountain range, but against it we can see the lark, taking wing into the sky ... .

Someone reading this article might say: listen to the teacher singing praises to his pupil! (Richter did study with me in his youth). Don't misunderstand me: I am proud of Richter not because he was my pupil. If it comes to that, I could well be proud of the fact that in his choice of teacher he decided on me, for in the case of talents like Richter, it doesn't really matter who they study with.

One thing I can say quite confidently: I shall continue to learn from Svyatoslav Richter, and admire him until my dying day.


translated by Olga Shartse

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This page was last updated on 25 February 2001.