Vol.1, Vol.2, Vol.3, Vol.4, Vol.5, Vol.6, Vol.7, Vol.8, Vol.9, Vol.10
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NO MIDDLE GROUND
The pianist with the pink plastic lobster
Sviatoslav Richter received his first lessons on the piano from his mother, and he later claimed that he had had three teachers: "My mother, Neuhaus and Wagner". When he was in his teens, he worked as a repetiteur at the Odessa Opera House, where he learnt to play many complete operatic scores from memory, and made his first acquaintance with Wagner's music, which was to remain the supreme passion throughout his life - hence the strange reference to Wagner as his teacher. During World War Two he travelled extensively, playing to the troops, and at considerable risk. Throughout his life he remained resolutely unpolitical, though for a person of his extreme independence of temperament the huge number of restrictions on personal freedom in the Soviet Union was a sore trial, and he had always to conceal his homosexuality.
In 1945 he met the soprano Nina Dorliac, and they soon formed a partnership. They never married, but they travelled a great deal together, and he frequently accompanied her in song recitals. Fortunately many of these were taped, and can be heard on disc, though not in impressive sound. Dorliac wasn't the possessor of a beautiful voice, but one can hear how expressive and sensitive an artist she was, and indeed their performances reveal new meanings in many songs one had thought one knew well.
Richter's career continued to flourish behind the Iron Curtain; he played at Stalin's funeral, an event on which he later gave a droll commentary, and toured tirelessly in the Eastern bloc countries. And gradually his reputation seeped into the West, together with some scratchy Russian records, which were enough to make Western music-lovers desperate to hear him. But his tactless individualism meant that the Soviet authorities were reluctant to let him out, and even in Russia he was tailed by a member of the KGB. Artists who were more compliant, such as Gilels and Oistrakh, spoke in the most rapturous terms about him whenever they visited Western cities, and finally, at the age of forty-five, Richter was allowed to play outside the Soviet orbit, first in Finland and the USA in 1960, then in France and England in 1961.
His London recitals in the Royal Festival Hall evoked mixed reactions. "Is he really with us?" ran one headline. For the paradoxical mixture of extraordinary intensity and remoteness which he possessed, and which might be said to be a quality he shared with his musical idol as a performer, Wilhelm Furtwangler ("What can I say, except that there's an unbridgeable gulf between him and all the others?" Richter once asked), led to him dividing opinion in a similar way, with many people claiming he was the greatest interpretative artist they had ever heard, while others found it hard to respond to him at all. In particular, Schubert's last Sonata (in B flat major, D960) was regarded as either outrageous in its expansiveness or sublime in its meditative concentration: Richter took twenty-five minutes over the first movement, which normally takes about sixteen.
One thing that threw audiences, both in London and in New York, where he had met with much the same mixed reception, was that they were expecting a virtuoso of super-Horowitzian proportions, while for much of the time Richter played intimate pieces in a withdrawn way, and made a brusque exit from the platform afterwards. He also played music which made ferocious technical demands, but in general he avoided the kind of warhorses with which Horowitz and many other virtuosi established their reputations. His various accounts of Liszt's Sonata in B minor are, however, in a class of their own (not least the one included in this collection), both for the bravura of the playing and the penetration of Richter's conception.
Yet on an "off" day, and Richter had many of them, he could hardly play a correct note. I went to some recitals of his that were an embarrassment because he couldn't trust his technique to overcome his attacks of nerves and other psychological afflictions. He was a profoundly depressive personality, and there were periods during which he couldn't play at all, others where he needed to have a carer with him all the time. In the wonderful book, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, which the Canadian musicologist Bruno Monsaingeon painstakingly assembled from innumerable encounters with Richter - not least during the making of his revelatory film Richter: The Enigma - we learn with amazement from the great pianist himself that there was a long period at the height of his career when he was unable to go anywhere except onto the concert platform without carrying with him a pink plastic lobster, something which he records with the dry factuality with which he comments on any other aspect of his life.
Richter became ever more unwilling to undertake concert tours abroad, especially if they involved playing in large concert halls. Yet he was happy to travel for thousands of miles in Siberia and stop off to give a concert in a small church with an atrociously out-of-tune piano. And his favourite place for making music was Tours, where he would regularly perform in a barn that chickens had only recently vacated; and, thanks to his prestige, the great figures of the musical world were happy to go there and perform with him. He was an enthusiastic chamber musician, and many of the classics of the chamber repertoire that involve a piano were performed there, and elsewhere. He retained his passion for Lieder, too, and formed a memorable partnership with the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as performing Schubert's Winterreise with the tenor Peter Schreier.
It is difficult to think of any other artist whose repertoire was so extensive and so selective. At the end of the Monsaingeon book there is a list of the pieces that Richter played in public, and it is staggering. There are huge quantities of all the classics, from Bach to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Webern, Britten and Hindemith. Yet, when one thinks of the qualities of Richter's playing that were so formidable, the gaps in his repertoire are almost as amazing as its prodigality. Given the violence of his temperament, you might expect Brahms's First Piano Concerto to suit him to a T; but there wasn't a single performance, while he played the second, conciliatory concerto forty-one times in public. Beethoven Concertos 4 and 5? Again, never. He played most of the Beethoven piano sonatas many times, but never the "Waldstein". He played seventeen of Chopin's twenty-seven Etudes (including the three posthumous ones) often, the remaining ten never. And so on. It's a miracle that he played Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier through from beginning to end. He was, from that point of view, a recording producer's nightmare; the sworn opponent of "completism". And, reading through the wonderful book Monsaingeon compiled, two hundred pages of which are devoted to Richter's comments on recordings or performances he has heard, one is bemused at the frequent arbitrariness of his opinions, and equally moved and impressed by the passionate depth of his insights. It was the same with his performances. I remember speaking to an arch-fan and friend of Richter's, who said, "I go to five concerts of his because one will be great". I don't think he was wrong; and it is a tribute to the often-abused workers in the recording industry that they so often had the microphones in place on the great occasions.
- Michael Tanner