Back in the USSR: Going Viral with Sviatoslav Richter

Sviatoslav Richter was undoubtedly one of the greatest and most influential pianists of the 20th century. He came to epitomise everything that people expected from a Russian virtuoso: a stern, penetrating intellect, breathtaking skill, demonic powers and magical, tantalising performances. But he was no flamboyant showman. Complex, intensely private and sometimes eccentric, reports of his legendary playing ‘went viral’ in an era before social media such that his debut in the West caused a sensation. His repertoire was enormous, running the gamut from Bach and Handel to Bartok, Berg, Gershwin, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. He also left behind one of the largest and most impressive recording legacies for any musician.

Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter was born in 1913 near Zhytomyr in modern day Ukraine. His father Teofil Danilovich Richter was a German pianist, organist and composer who had studied in Vienna, his mother Anna Pavlovna was one of Teofil’s former students. In spite of the lack of formal training, the young Richter showed early promise. “I never played scales,” Richter later confessed. “No exercises either. Never. I began with Chopin’s first Nocturne.” As a teenager he made a modest living as an accompanist by performing in factories and nursing homes, and touring with “singers, violinists, circuses…” Of the Odessa Sailor’s Club, he said simply “The singers were downright awful.”

When Richter started his formal training at the Moscow Conservatory in 1937, his teacher Heinrich Neuhaus thought him a genius and “already a complete artist”. He developed a strong bond with Prokofiev (who was on the faculty) and in 1942 premiered the composer’s Sixth Piano Sonata. This bombastic, rebarbative ‘war sonata’ has an added poignancy when one recalls that Richter’s father had been executed on charges of espionage in a Stalinist purge in the previous year and his mother (whom he would not see for another 20 years) had fled to Germany. Richter also gave the first performance of the composer’s Seventh and Ninth Sonatas (the latter dedicated to him) and became a life-long champion of Prokofiev’s music.

After winning the USSR Music Competition (1945) and the Stalin Prize (1949), he toured extensively throughout the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the 1950s. It was around this time that tales of his legendary playing seeped out, fanned by live recordings on the Melodiya label of his concerts. His long-awaited North American debut in 1960 in Chicago, playing Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf, was a sensation, one critic writing that he gave “the performance of a lifetime”. Little wonder therefore that his concerts the following year at the Royal Festival Hall in London were sold out.

In spite of his loathing for plane travel and ocean crossings, for the next thirty years he toured throughout Europe and Japan to great acclaim, in later years preferring smaller, more intimate venues such as the Aldeburgh Festival in England where he played duets with Benjamin Britten as well as other chamber music. He also took to playing in darkened concert halls with his music illuminated by a single lamp. “We are living in an age of voyeurs,” he once wrote in programme notes, “and nothing is more fatal for music.” His last recorded public performance took place in Munich in 1994, in a programme of Beethoven sonatas. He died on 1 August 1997 in Moscow.

Richter’s recorded legacy is nothing short of extraordinary. Unauthorised recordings aside, it’s estimated that he made 541 recording sessions (comprising 454 live concerts and 87 studio sessions) which represents around 90% of his repertoire of 1,336 items (including short pieces). Many of these are considered benchmark performances such as his recordings of the aforementioned Brahms concerto, Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Topping of the list of his most recorded pieces are Rachmaninov’s Prelude op 32 no 12 (20 times), followed by Chopin’s Revolutionary Study op 10 no 12 (17 times) and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie op 61 (14 times).

Many of his best recordings were made in concert. He professed a dislike for studio recording but nevertheless took them seriously, preferring to work at night (from around 9pm to 3am) and in long takes. As a perfectionist, he would re-record pieces if he was unhappy with the result. On one occasion, after recording Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy on a Bösendorfer piano, he told a sound engineer “Well, I think we’ll remake it on the Steinway after all.”

This fastidiousness extended to his live recordings “Even when we recorded him onstage,” said Jacques Leiser, a concert manager, “he insisted that he not be able to see the microphones. We would have to hide them in potted palms and among vases of flowers.”

While Richter’s playing sometimes divided the critics, there was no doubt over his consummate musicianship. “Authority rises around his performances like great stone monuments,” wrote the otherwise dissenting critic Bernard Holland, “Mr. Richter does not interpret a piece of music; he looms over it.”

Perhaps the best assessment came from his teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Heinrich Neuhaus. “Richter …” he said “treated each composition like a vast landscape which he surveyed from great height with the vision of an eagle, taking in the whole and all the details at the same time. He played like no one I had ever heard, and there was nothing I could teach him.”

Kevin Painting

Published 30 June 2016 on primephonic.
Header image courtesy of Sony.


Sviatoslav Richter – The Complete Album Collection
Release date: 05 Jan 2015

Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, Claude Debussy, Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Robert Schumann, Alexander Scriabin, Franz Schubert, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Joseph Haydn.

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