Listening to Richter

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) is widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. He was well known for the depth of his interpretations, virtuoso technique, extensive repertoire, and aversion to the recording studio.

He is one of the few great solo artists who was not a child prodigy, beginning formal studies at the Moscow Conservatory with Heinrich Neuhaus when he was 22. During Richter’s audition for Neuhaus, the teacher apparently whispered to a fellow student ‘this man’s a genius’. Although Neuhaus taught many great pianists, including Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu, it is said that he considered Richter to be ‘the genius pupil’ for whom he had been waiting all his life.

While Richter enjoyed performing, his evaluation of his own performances was uncompromising. He played small venues throughout the Soviet Union, and he was known to repeat the entire program after the concert in an empty hall if he was unsatisfied with the performance.

He refused to record in the studio, arguing that each performance was whole, complete, and unique. His style was unabashedly romantic, and sometimes his experiments worked, and sometimes they did not. Richter’s playing, at its best which was most of the time, was transcendental.

Richter’s repertoire was vast, ranging from Handel and Bach to Szymanowski, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Britten, and Gershwin. His memoirs, recounted to the film maker Bruno Monsaingeon and published by Princeton as Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, make for fascinating reading. His comments on his contemporaries, sometimes judiciously edited by Monsaingeon, are both tart and insightful. His tale of the bizarre funeral of Joseph Stalin, at which he and other Soviet artists were commanded to perform, is almost surreal.

Richter was a genius. He saw the performer’s role as trying to realize the composer’s intentions as accurately and as fully as it was possible for him to do so. But that does not get to the core of his art, since he was guided by his own unique inspiration. He had no technical limitations, and he played only what he thought was worthy of his attention. If he could not get at the musical essence of a work, he would not play it publicly.

He brought a delicacy and warmth to the music of Schumann and Schubert that tempered his sometimes tempestuous passion. His Prokofiev is the stuff of legend. His collaborations with his admired colleague, the violinist David Oistrakh, are unique. Fortunately, Richter’s recorded legacy is almost as vast as his repertoire.

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