On Richter

It's funny how the impressions we receive when we are young are so indelible. They make everything that comes in life later on seem lackluster and one long anti-climax. We desperately try to recreate the excitement of discovery and revelation that we experience when we were 12, 13, 14. But no matter how hard we try, it never comes up to what we experienced then. For most people, having children and establishing their own families is an attempt to recreate that time. Well, they are recreating themselves; but it's not really the same--you just recreate something you can look at and admire; you can't actually recreate the feeling you yourself had of being alive and discovering wondrous new things every day.

I am reminded of this very familiar syndrome by seeing a clip of acclaimed Russian performer Sviatoslav Richter on the website Pianists from the Inside, a splendid website for piano enthusiasts (splendid not just because it is running a blog post of my own at the moment, but because it is beautifully presented, varied and full of interest to people who love the piano).

When I was 12 or 13 I asked my dad if I could have a recording of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, which I didn't yet know. I was starting to acquire recordings--beautiful, treasurable LPs in those days--and already had the usual suspects: Tchaikovsky No.1, Grieg, Emperor. My dad would buy me one every other week if I was a good boy--even if I wasn't. But apart from having too much energy and impatience (an early form of ADD, I suppose) I was, I believe, reasonable good: there simply wasn't enough time to get into too much trouble, with eight hours of piano practice as well as school every day. So off we went to the Continental Record Shop in Acland St., St. Kilda, with great excitement and anticipation, and asked for the new addition to my small and very precious collection.

"Here," the lady said, handing us a purple-covered LP with a photo of a sullen-looking balding middle-aged man--not at all what you would except a great pianist to look like: everyone knew they looked ambassadorial, like Horowitz or Rubinstein, always in regal tail-coat, with some mysterious little decoration pinned to their lapel (Legion d'honneur, I later learnt). "This is the top new pianist." Richter. Never heard of him. Sounded German, but he was actually Russian. Can't go wrong with a Russian, I knew already, even at that age. So we bought it.

It was startlingly good, too (I still have it, in mint condition, as I do everything else I bought in the ensuing years). Here was infallibly accurate and unusually strong playing, but there was something else too. There was a raw quality, which brought an eerie feeling of suspension of time. I soon acquired Richter's then celebrated recordings of the Wanderer Fantasy, Tempest Sonata, Appassionata, Schumann recordings from a concert tour of Italy, and others. It seemed that the pianist had only recently become known internationally, in his late forties, having been what was termed a "dark horse" among the well-known Russian artists then acclaimed all over the world--Gilels, Oistrakh, a young Rostropovich, the Bolshoi Ballet. "Dark horse," I eventually found out, meant Richter was his own man and couldn't be induced to do anything he didn't want to do; the Soviet authorities liked to keep a tight rein on all the artists they allowed out to the West, and did so through constant intimidating surveillance by their consular officials. Richter would wander off by himself, and seemed to be unintimidatable, so they simply didn't let him out of Russia till he was middle aged. However, there was so much prestige to be gained for the Soviet Union, they finally decided that he was just a loner and wasn't going to do them any real harm.

And so it proved. After a few brief years, during which everyone quickly came to the same opinion as the lady in the Continental Record Shop, Richter disappeared from the standard concert halls, as well as the big cities of the West. Apart from political intimidation, which was like water off a duck's back to him, he also went his own way in other ways. He disliked being committed to a definite date for a concert, preferring to perform whenever he felt like it. Thus it was impossible to book concert halls for him in large cities (this naturally has to be done in advance, and advertising allowed for). He didn't like flying at all, so after three tours of America, in 1960, '65 and '70, he swore off any intercontinental travel. He preferred small out-of-the-way places in central Europe, towns with a little atmosphere or history. The only venues available in these small places were churches, or, as in the case where he finally settled on his own annual summer festival, a medieval barn in rural France.

But without a regular concert schedule, the solo performances became strange and rather introverted. There was always tremendous fascination and, often, hypnotic performances, especially of works where an introverted approach brought a new and mesmerizing dimension, such as Schubert sonatas and the Well-Tempered Clavier (which can take any approach). By the 1980s Richter seemed to have lost his nerve in public and insisted on using music at all times, having formerly had the most phenomenal repertoire range of any established pianist who ever lived. Using music unavoidably slows one down--in a figurative as well as literal sense: if one feels the need for it in front of one, then psychologically one feels at a disadvantage with the music and with the performance. And so it proved.

At this stage of his life, Richter determined to perform all the repertoire he had ever engaged with, and have it recorded live, as if he was thinking very seriously about his legacy. The number of CDs to result from this project is breathtaking (I think in the region of 200 or more). But none of these recordings have the finish, the mastery, or the excitement of those studio and live recordings from the 1960s.

I met Richter once, and it was a very memorable event in my life. I was studying in Warsaw at the time, and there was suddenly a rumor that there was to be a recital by the acclaimed pianist the next day in Krakow. It seemed unbelievable, but that's how it was with Richter--there was suddenly an announcement that he would perform that week, in whichever hall or church was available in some medium-sized city. So with a friend who was also studying piano in Warsaw, I flew down to Krakow and headed straight for the main concert hall. We went up to the third floor, where he was supposedly practicing, and there, from a room at the end of a corridor, was indeed the sound of a piano. We seated ourselves on a bench outside and listened eagerly. Soon a janitor with a pail and mop came along, opened the door to the inner sanctum, and announced it was closing time. He looked around at us with an annoyed shrug and said, "What can you do, it's Richter." A moment later, the man emerged himself, clutching his two or three volumes of music to his chest over his gray overcoat, and walked past us.

We inquired as to the nearest good hotel and went along to settle ourselves before the concert. At dinnertime we went down to the restaurant and were just about to start on our soup when the renowned pianist suddenly appeared at the entrance. My friend impulsively ran over to him and said, "Mr. Richter, please sit with us!" (I never could have done that, but I was very glad she did). He looked a little shy and sheepish and said, "But I don't know you."

"I'm Renata Turrini and my friend is Alan Kogosowski."

"Good, that's OK then."

And he came with us to our table.

For the next hour we spoke of Schubert sonatas, Saint-Saens concertos, Chopin etudes, the repertoire he was going to play that evening, how he prepared for it--anything and everything--in a mixture of French and German. After the first 10 minutes, we had completely forgotten that he was a renowned pianist, probably the most famous in the world and was much older than us (he was then in his early 60s). He was without ego and had the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old.

He had a naughty streak too. He was then learning Schubert's late G major sonata, and he was planning to perform it the next season (in an out-of-the-way place) at a super-slow tempo (as he did many Schubert "heavenly length" sonatas). He hummed it to us, and it was certainly slower than any other version. He knew that this would cause controversy, and he twinkled at the reaction he could foresee it getting. He liked music that wasn't so serious and heavy, like Saint-Saens--"One needs dessert as well as main course," he had said. And he gave me what he said was the best advice he could give: "Always lay out all your clothes for the concert before dinner." (I was starting to get nervous for him as the time drew closer for the concert, and he seemed oblivious, talking instead about Schubert and Saint-Saens.)

Years later, I saw Bruno Monsaingeon's excellent film, Richter the Enigma, and immediately recognized the kind of ego-less conversation that pervades this film. It is advertised on the sleeve as "Richter's first-ever interview," and I realized that the public had indeed never heard him speak, although in fact he was more than happy to speak--wittily and quirkily--on any subject. I was only sad to see him so thin and ill-looking in this long and fascinating interview, for he had always been a powerful and imposing man. At his height, he looked like Schroder from Peanuts sitting at his toy piano--always uncomfortable looking (unlike the ever-poised Horowitz), hunched over the keyboard, too big for the piano. Although most photos of Richter show him unsmiling and uncharming--often even rather angry looking--when I met him, he looked very much like the photo on the attached record cover. Quizzical, gentle, humane.

I will never have another experience like the discovery of Richter, and all the music that came with that discovery, sadly. "He was like the Roman Empire," the pianist Roger Woodward remarked to me. You couldn't imagine the world without him.

But the music is still there--Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and Saint-Saens--I console myself with that.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment