Sviatoslav Richter was a pianist's pianist, admired by the likes of Glenn Gould, Van Cliburn and Emil Gilels. Born on 20 March 1915 near Zhytomyr (Ukraine), the Soviet virtuoso became a lifelong champion of his composer countryman Sergei Prokofiev, whose tour-de-force Seventh Sonata he premiered in 1943 (the Ninth was dedicated to Richter), and whose Violin Sonata No.1 he played at Stalin's funeral with David Oistrakh.
Richter had won the Stalin Prize in 1949; it wasn't until the 1960s that he gave his first, highly-anticipated concerts in the West, his performances at Carnegie Hall the stuff of legend.
He remains a towering figure of the piano in the 20th century, and one of the most widely recorded of all time. EMI Classics (now Warner Classics) captured his explosive virtuosity and broad repertoire in recordings from Dvorak's Piano Concerto (a rare and fruitful collaboration with Carlos Kleiber) to Handel Keyboard Suites. As a chamber musician he was in esteemed company with Oistrakh and Rostropovich in the Beethoven Triple Concerto. In 2012, Teldec released a 3-CD collection including a Richter's first-ever recording of first ever recording (live) of Mozart's Piano Concerto in C Major, K503.
Richter died in 1997 at the age of 82 but remains a titan in the pantheon of great pianists.
A concert by Sviatoslav Richter — long regarded by many as the foremost pianist of his generation — was an exceptional occurrence in
more senses than one. Not only did he prefer to perform in small halls in order to emphasise the intimate nature of the music, but he eschewed any form of lighting apart from a small reading lamp attached to his piano, an arrangement aimed at ensuring that concentration was directed solely at the piece in hand. And, finally,
he adopted the habit of invariably playing from the score. The reason for this, he explained, was that, instead of having to devote his energies to memorising the notes, he was free to interpret the music.
On the other hand, he never tired of stressing that music should have a theatrical element to it. “Not in the sense of empty effects,” he would hasten to add, “but I’ve a certain trick that I play with the Liszt Sonata, for example. I go out onto the platform, sit down, close my eyes and slowly count up to thirty. People wonder what is happening and slowly become uneasy, but the result is an incredible tension. Only then do I begin.”
It is no wonder, therefore, that even at the start of his international career — a career that could not begin until the 1960s, since he was not allowed to travel to the West until then —, reviewers already found Richter both “introverted’’ and “unpredict able”. Even a critic as familiar with the world of pianism as Joachim Kaiser made no secret of his difficulty in summing up Richter’s musical character in unequivocal terms.
Certainly, Richter could not be placed in any of the usual categories. Even his incredible repertory militated against such facile categorisation, inasmuch as it allowed him to perform any one of eighty or so different recital programmes at a moment’s notice — to say nothing of all the works that he played in chamber ensembles or in his capacity as a no less phenom enal Lieder accompanist.
Richter was also familiar with world literature and painting, a familiarity due not least to the fact that he was a painter him self. Richter — and it is this that constituted his true greatness — was
ultimately one of those artists who are invariably more concerned with the matter in hand than with flaunting their egos and who devote themselves to their work with a seriousness that is nowadays growing increasingly rare.
Apart from his father, who gave him his first piano lessons, it was above all the legendary pianist and teacher Heinrich Neuhaus who most influenced Sviatoslav Richter. It was to Neuhaus — as he repeatedly emphasised in conversation — that he owed his ability to produce what he termed “an extremely singing tone”.
If there was a single undisputed characteristic of Sviatoslav Richter’s playing, it was his unerring feeling for sound as such, a quality that
he invariably used on a conscious level as a formal artistic device. And he did so, moreover, in the way de manded by the style of the works
that he was performing.
In consequence, Richter would invest Robert Schumann’s virtuoso
works with a very real luminosity. In the case of Ravel, he set store by cerebral brilliance, while Debussy’s different worlds of sound were
imbued with subtle distinction. But he was equally capable of giving infectious expression to Beethoven’s passionate outbursts and to Prokofiev’s motoric rhythms. That Wagner, Debussy and Chopin were among his favourite composers never prevented Richter from returning again and again to the keyboard works of Bach and Mozart in the course of a long career that took him all round the world.
Timbre also played a particular role in Richter’s musical understanding, a point that he emphasised in conversation, but that was also borne out by his performances. That this also affected the specific sound quality of his own instrument, the piano, can be heard in his Bach
interpretations. Where others attempt to conjure up the sound world of a harpsichord by their suitably ingenious attack, Sviatoslav Richter adopted an apparently plain, large-scale motoric approach and — especially in the slower passages — an altogether unwavering
sobriety, behind which one nonetheless senses the white-hot passion of a pianist profoundly imbued by the spirit of the music. One of Richter’s principal articles of faith ran: “Only the notes themselves count, nothing else.”
Translation: Stewart Spencer
This essay appears in Sviatoslav Richter: the Teldec Recordings.