Vol.1, Vol.2, Vol.3, Vol.4, Vol.5, Vol.6, Vol.7, Vol.8, Vol.9, Vol.10
Of the great Schubert players of the twentieth century - Schnabel, Brendel, Lupu, Kovacevich, and Richter - Richter was arguably the greatest. Because while the rest each had their own individual merits, Schnabel's spirit, Lupu's poetry, Brendel's brilliance, and Kovacevich's soul, Richter combined all of these and added aching lyricism, wild fantasy, sublime grace, and almost super-human power to create a heroic Schubert of visionary strength and genius. In these three sonatas, all of them among the lesser known of the Austrian composer's works, the Russian pianist finds more music, and better music, than any other pianist. His massive G major D. 894 recorded in London on March 20, 1989, finds heights, depths, and especially breadths in the opening Molto moderato e cantabile that none before him had suspected; his lighter B major D. 575 recorded in Florence on June 12, 1966, rides with irresistible joy through its racing closing Allegro giusto; his unfinished C major "Reliquie" D. 840 recorded in Salzburg on November 27, 1979, surpasses its uncompleted status to achieve a transcendent state of terror and bliss. Along with his elfin A major Sonata recorded in Paris in 1963 and his magisterial B flat major Sonata recorded in Aldeburgh in 1964, these three recordings belong on every shelf of Schubert's piano music. It should be noted that although the disc lists all three performances as having been recorded in 1979, the distinctly different sound of each argues against it, and a glance at Richter's discography disproves it.
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STAGES OF VENERATION
The Closeness and Inaccessibility of an Idol
The small seven-inch records were handy, and their programmes introduced those of us who were young in the early Sixties primarily to miniatures for orchestra, voice and piano. Once, when one of my surprisingly numerous music-loving fellow students lacked the wherewithal, he helped himself to one of the little discs in a legally inadmissable fashion. We received the punishment we deserved, but we had been infected, and that evening, when the "Moonlight" Sonata or the two Brahms Rhapsodies rotated and crackled on the turntable at 45 r.p.m., there was no doubt that this was the beginning of a lifelong passion.
I tell this story because, among those first mono recordings, I acquired by sheer good fortune a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Sviatoslav Richter: a group of five Rachmaninov preludes taken from an LP record featuring the Second Piano Concerto and six selected preludes from Op.23 and Op.32. It was the Prelude in G minor, op.23 no.5 - rhythmically striking, thematically sombre yet proud - that particularly fascinated me at that time. And I began to look for alternatives to Sviatoslav Richter's approach in terms of rubato, continuity, the relationship between pianistic and lyrical resources, cantilena playing and repeats. Julian von Karolyi, for example. Also a seven-inch record! But that interpretation of this tripartite microcosm, with its blatantly French-flavoured middle section, seemed cursory and unarchitectural. It was Sviatoslav Richter's authoritative qualities that brought about this poetic situation and led to an understanding, even a certain sort of mystical bond, between two beings connected only by the content of a short, spectacular piece of music - the one as transmitter, the other as receiver.
In the years that followed I tried to get hold of any Richter recordings available in the shops, or at least to have tapes of them. Tchaikovsky's Concerto in B flat minor under Karajan; the commanding, incisive performances of the Schumann Concerto, the Toccata, op.7, and the Novelette, op.21 no.2; but also Waldszenen, in which Richter's subtlety of nuance is unparalleled, his interpretation both imaginative and soulful, and six of the Fantasiestucke, op.12, originally released on the "Heliodor" label. There were also the American studio recordings and concert recordings, among which Brahms's Second Concerto under Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston recordings of Beethoven's C major Concerto with Charles Munch conducting gave me such enormous insights that I have used them ever since as a yardstick in my work and recommended them accordingly.
Sviatoslav Richter did not visit what was then West Germany until quite late in his career. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine I read - enviously - how this solitary exponent of /musical truth, so close to me and yet so inaccessible, had made his debut in Berlin with Brahms's Concerto in B flat. It was Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt who reported this event with well-chosen, enthusiastic words that were for me, I admit, inadequate. And then I had the good fortune to see in the flesh the man I revered with such respect and even timidity. I must confess that I sat in the last row of the Grofte Saal of the Salzburg Mozarteum with moist hands and a feeling somewhere in my stomach that can best be described as the result of joyful anticipation and detached trepidation. Perhaps it is the same for people who, after exchanging letters for years, embark on a deeper and closer relationship by meeting in person. The main questions in my mind were: is this really the man I have placed on a pedestal during all those hours of enchantment, inner discussion and veneration? Will he live up to these glowing preconceptions, perhaps even surpass them?
When Sviatoslav Richter came on stage - purposeful, a little unfriendly, but definitely and incomparably "real" - I experienced for the first time the metamorphosis of place and self that I was to experience again and again in the years that followed, in the most diverse (and also the most curious) situations - regardless of whether Richter was in the best of health or in good spirits, or whether he played in the Styrian Musikschule at Deutschlandsberg, in the spacious Cologne Philharmonic or in the acoustically dry but highly atmospheric Grange de Meslay near Tours. This was not just a pianist, a highly gifted "performer" who set out, in the name of the great composers, to tell of his experiences, his wishes, his vulnerability, his wounds and his musico-analytical insights; this was rather a spiritual force, a supreme power personified, indisputably establishing direct communication with those authorities whose music has miraculously been handed down to us in writing. Richter had none of those quasi-communicative qualities characteristic of the great keyboard entertainer. The bond between him and the listener was not something cast down from the stage condescendingly, yet at the same time soliciting approval. The bond was formed even before the first note was heard. And it endured long after the last chords of a series of pieces by Debussy or a Schubert sonata had died away.
Herein may lie the secret of why so many music-lovers set out again and again to unearth Sviatoslav Richter at unwonted hours in both likely and unlikely venues, in a concert circuit which has long deserved the critical label of "business" a term with which it was sometimes rather prematurely discredited even in the Sixties. As we know, Richter did not wish to be too restricted in his decisions as to where and when he would play. He dissociated himself from subscription concerts and from concerts organised in advance, so that at the proper time he could feel his way, in the truest sense, from place to place, from town to town. One should not overlook the fact that Richter - despite many periods of illness and artistic withdrawal - nonetheless remained one of those pianists whose concert statistics reveal a truly restless and inconceivably fruitful life. This included of course a wide-ranging repertoire that is not at all easy for the observer to research and whose musical significance is impossible to realise fully. In these circumstances, surprises were never precluded. I well remember my astonishment when Richter's recording of Berg's Chamber Concerto was released or when he performed Webem's Variations, op.27, in a concert hall in Wels, in Upper Austria - the first time I ever heard this work. He never at any price allowed himself to be talked into presenting complete cycles of works (such as all twenty-four of Chopin's Preludes, op.28), but he explored every path in the repertoire as no other twentieth-century pianist did, albeit excluding the avant-garde of the post-war period. That those of us living west of the former Soviet Union still do not know anything like the whole story of the initiative shown by this vulnerable giant was brought home to me by a recent glance at the list of Richter's recordings for Radio Moscow and Leningrad Radio. Schubert's Erlkonig in the arrangement by Liszt, "Ondine" and "Le Gibet" from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, Liszt's Vallee d'Obermann, Stravinsky's Sonata, Hindemith's Sonatas for bassoon or tuba, Haydn's D major Concerto, Brahms's Handel Variations and Max Reger's Piano Quintet are all listed there - and I am sure that most readers of these lines will feel as great a sense of excitement and anticipation on reading this list of unexpected novelties as I did on receiving it from the Hungarian pianist Dezso Ranki, one of Richter's greatest admirers.
- Peter Cosse (translation Mary Adams)