Recollections of Richter – part 1

On the centenary of the birth of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, I am delighted to present a series of recollections from pianist friends and colleagues, readers of this blog, those who met and knew Richter, and many others around the world.

The internet has proved a fantastic resource for sharing favourite recordings, video clips, quotations, ephemera and reminiscences of Richter. Thank you to everyone who has contributed. To join in the centenary celebrations on Twitter, please use the hashtag #richter100.

His personality was greater than the possibilities offered to him by the piano, broader than the very concept of complete mastery of the instrument.
Pierre Boulez

He doesn’t hurry the first section, which creates a great tension with the string melody, and also the tonal colours he uses to bring out the inner voices in each movement. Definitely a most melodic Rach 2 (DR)

Richter’s 1958 Sofia Recital consists of (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest recordings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (ML)

This man, along with Glenn Gould, has changed the way I listen to the music.
( “Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto n°2” – Sviatoslav Richter & Warsaw Philarmonic Orchestra – DGG) (RU)

Richter’s Prokofiev performances in general, the 8th Sonata in particular. He plays as one who has lived through the bleak circumstances during which it was written. For me it is the combination of incredible control and restraint on the one hand and sheer bolshiness on the other that makes his playing so intoxicating. (PL)

His 1960 Moscow ‘Appassionata’ is my favorite recording of that work, which is arguably one of the most important works in the whole repertoire. The energy, speed, tonal range at the most explosive passages and general theatrical effect makes it one of a kind to me. And let’s not forget it is a live performance (like most of his recordings). There are other similar best-in-world achievements that combine athleticism with emotional expression, but always with moderation, refined taste and discipline, like Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’, Dvorak’s Concerto. In summary I would say that his performances in whatever genre was almost always world-class, which cannot be said of many other pianists, which, in combination with perhaps the biggest repertoire ever, creates an almost endless oeuvre for listeners to enjoy the whole life. (JN)
I have been in awe of Richter since my student days. His live recording of the ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ has got to be the most staggering performance in the history of the medium. I would be quite happy to have one percent of his interpretive skills. (RI)
Apparently he hated testing pianos – that scary business when you go in to a piano showroom and everyone seems to be playing Liszt from memory and you can barely remember a C major chord – when proffered a test Steinway, he’d poke one note and then back off, looking startled. (RE)
The greatest pianist I ever heard. Why? Because of his fierce commitment, artistic integrity and sound. Even when at his most seemingly ‘perverse’ (Schubert tempi for example) he took you on the most unbelievable musical journeys. Shook hands with him once after a recital in Cheltenham and we spoke in German. Youngsters these days have no idea of the thoroughness of a training he enjoyed….playing on lousy upright pianos in freezing weather on the back of troop carriers in the war. He was largely indifferent to pianos though he displayed a curious penchant for Yamahas in the last decade or so of his life but generally he just played whatever was in front of him. I heard him, I suppose at his best from the mid-60’s on. A transcendental artist, and the film ‘The Enigma’ is essential viewing for anyone interested not just in him but in pianism generally. Not the man for all men though – Brendel told me that when he was listening to SR playing Schubert’s G major sonata live (on radio) from the Royal Festival Hall he wanted to hurl the radio through the window. This probably tells us more about Brendel than Richter. Essential viewing also – Richter’s performance with Rostropovich of the complete Beethoven cello sonatas from the Edinburgh Festival – a hastily arranged, last-minute concert starting (I think) at midnight! Available on dvd. If I had to choose only one pianist’s recordings to take to my desert island it would be Richter. (JH)
I had a privilege having Slava as part of music upbringing through his many LPs, as I may humbly mention my mom has studied and gained her Masters with Heinrich Neuhaus in Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in the 60s.

As I have studied with my mother, I was raised with Russian School, for which I feel humbled and honoured, as at its time had produced such an array of brilliant players, particularly mastering tone production and voicing.

Of course Slava was one of a kind, just as Heinrich described in every way and very often talked of his incredible artistry during his classes.

I may be wrong, but I personally find his Brahms Concerto No. 2, Franck Prelude Chorale and Fugue and many of Liszt, Schubert, Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Chopin absolutely mercurial and I may imagine, awesome to behold. (DG)

Richter! Takes you by the hand and leads you where only he knows…. (AM)
…the unique atmosphere of a Richter concert. The audience in darkness, the imposing profile, the solidity of the sound, the savage beauty of the interpretation…truly a cataclysmic event, quite outside the usual parameters of the ‘piano recital’ (JL)

I first heard him at the end of my first term at the RCM. Dec 7th 1970. Sat on the platform about 5 yds from the keyboard. The memory of that evening is still so strong. I had never before, and rarely since, witnessed such astonishing playing. Simply spell-binding. The power of Schubert D958 and the alarming speed of the finale was electrifying. Then wonderful Bartók and Szymanowski, and the concert ended with a breathtaking Prokofiev 7th Sonata. I wanted, in equal measure, to rush home and practice and to give up and never play again!

He could sometimes infuriate but at his best he was beyond compare. I feel privileged that I heard him live on many occasions but nothing matched up to that December evening in 1970. (CB)

It’s precisely Richter’s certainty, his integrity, the fact that music seems to speak with an Olympian objectivity at the same time as an impossible-sounding lyricism and sustained tone (listen to his extraordinarily slow yet convincing Schubert sonatas), without ever a shred of indulgence in virtuosity or sensuality for its own sake, that makes these performances definitively Richterian. That’s the point about his musicianship: its strength of conviction and imagination makes you believe when you’re listening to him that this really is the way the music has to go, that what you’re hearing truly is the fundamental core of these pieces.

(Tom Service, The Guardian – 10 of the best: Essential Richter recordings)