Two musical instruments rise above all others in their humanity — the violin, because it comes closest to imitating the singing voice, and the piano, because it comes closest to conveying human nature. As human nature is vast, so is pianism. You can sequester yourself from territory that is too hot, cold, angry, lustful, domineering, or terrifying. Some pianists base their whole career on safely walling off the troubling aspects of human perversity (Alfred Brendel comes to mind, with his ability to make even Liszt wipe off his shoes at the door), while only one has been courageous enough to venture without a care into heaven and hell.
Sviatoslav Richter’s nature as a musician was nothing short of human nature. In the acclaimed documentary Richter, the Enigma, we witness someone who was a walking paradox: a Byronic introvert, a commanding technician who didn’t care what kind of instrument he played on, a cultural sophisticate who toured Siberia carrying a concert grand in tow so that he could stop the train at remote villages just shy of Gulag category and treat them to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier while the audience knocked snow off their boots.
Richter was awed when Shostakovich came to dinner and commented to his wife that it was like having Tchaikovsky in their home. He spent day after day walking through every district of Moscow to savor the essence of each neighborhood. He was unassuming enough to sleep under a friend’s piano if he was too drunk to go home after a party. But the most telling image I have of him is one where he has just finished the final flourish of a concerto. The last fortissimo chord sends Richter rocketing off the bench as if it were a launch pad, exuding nervous energy like a lion after a kill.
Recordings can barely contain Richter’s omnivorous appetite, both for music and for performing. When you review his repertoire, it can be summarized in a word: everything. He claimed to play only the music he loved, which led to quixotic behavior like leaving out one or two Chopin Etudes from the whole set or a handful of Debussy Preludes. But there was very little that he didn’t play, bespeaking a musical libido comparable to Don Giovanni’s thousand and three conquests in Spain alone.
If you consult the excellent online Richter discography* (http://www.trovar.com/str/discs/index.html), 44 composers are listed from Bach to Wolf, with a strong emphasis on Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev, whose scores have never been performed better. Even then, however, Richter omitted a handful of Beethoven’s sonatas, including Op. 78, 79, and 81 “Les Adieux.” He also excluded the Fourth and “Emperor” Concertos, for whatever idiosyncratic reason. As for great composers that he was allergic to, Richter rarely performed any Mozart concertos or sonatas. He thought Haydn’s piano writing was fresher and more dramatic. Closer to the truth is that Mozart’s style gives smaller scope for Richter’s spontaneous liberties and mood swings. Exquisite Dresden dolls aren’t allowed to be manic.
Three phases on disc
There are dozens of Richter recordings no longer in print, but even so, one online store currently lists 297. Finding the ones that sound good and also represent him at his height is no easy task; it’s rather a snark hunt, in fact. As an aid to anyone who might want to join the hunt — not that any of us in the safari is too tired to keep bushwhacking — here’s a rough guide to the three phases of his long career, with a few suggestions about select recordings that I wouldn’t be without.
Phase 1 — Soviet pre-1960:
Here is Richter in his most Horowitzian phase, a nervy, high-strung player full of attack and brio. The technique is phenomenal, the self-confidence fearless, the ability to mesmerize unique. Even in this period, which has been saved mostly in patchy Melodiya sound, or dismal private tapes made in concert, Richter loved rapture more than precision. However many notes he dropped, one never lost the sense that he had conquered the piano utterly.
The best source for recordings is probably the Parnassus label, with its multi-disc series, Richter in the Fifties, along with DoReMi, a boutique label whose owner has scrounged up and refurbished many one-of-a-kind recitals. In both cases, the original sources can be quite dodgy — it helps to hear samples online first. But in Parnassus’s case, they were the first to offer Richter’s only lengthy foray into Liszt’s Années de Pélerinage. Despite the Stone Age sonics, these are unmissable readings. Later on, Liszt seemed to decline in interest for Richter, and quite a few pieces appear only once or twice in his discography (the B minor Sonata, a touchstone of Richter’s mastery, appears several times but only in 1965-66).
Phase 2 — Richter in the West, post-1960:
By the time he came West in 1960 Richter was 45, and he made a stunning impact at Carnegie Hall and in London. The great Russian school of pianism had a second dawn, just at the time when Horowitz was reclusive and eclipsed. In this phase, and lasting for about twenty years, there’s a steady flow of studio recordings made by Western labels, and also a wealth of international concerts from Moscow to Tokyo. The recorded sound is variable, to be kind, and yet generally better than in the Soviet period.
This is the heart of Richter’s career on disc, and treasures abound. The collector has multiple choices when it comes to Richter’s favorite composers: Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Scriabin, and Rachmaninov. As a true believer in the Soviet system, Richter was repelled by America but made room to love England. His close association with Benjamin Britten and the Aldeburgh Festival yielded the best four-hand recordings he ever made, particularly of Schubert.
In the studio the spoils were divided between EMI and DG. The English label got the odd end of the stick— a good deal of Bach and Handel, for example. There are almost annual London recitals on BBC Legends, and slightly outnumbering them are 15 CDs from the Prague Festival, where Richter appeared every season. Tokyo recitals are also fairly abundant, but these are mostly from the late Seventies, at a time when the glory days become scarcer.
Considering how much he toured, for example, there’s a bewildering amount of Beethoven sonatas to pick one’s way through. Music & Arts’ two sets — now sadly out of print — gathered fine examples of all the sonatas that Richter played — as one quickly learns, he went through burst of enthusiasm, only to drop a piece forever after. If you want Richter’s reckless, breathless “Hammerklavier” Sonata, for example, all three accounts date to the summer of 1975, with separate accounts from Prague, London, and Aldeburgh.
Phase 3 — Twilight, from 1980 onward:
By the time Philips begins to amass its lengthy Richter Edition, which made a splash when reissued in multi-disc sets, the late phase has begun, and for me, a considerable waning. I bow to anyone’s appreciation of the pianist’s late inwardness, but too much in the Philips series sounds tired and underpowered compared to the startling, heroic Richter I love. (Decca has apparently picked up the same recordings in an act of pointless duplication among the Universal labels.)
I can recall no outstanding studio recordings from this era. In particular, the best of Richter’s concerto recordings —Liszt #1 and #2, Grieg, Schumann, Prokofiev #3 and #5, Tchaikovsky #1, and of course RCA’s phenomenal Brahms Second (does anyone truly need to own any other version?) — are well behind him in the third phase. There’s no point in digging around the archives for the odd great concerto performance; there aren’t any, in my experience.
As he aged, Richter seemed to lose his nerve before audiences. He often turned up in small towns in France or Italy without more than a few days notice. The hall would be darkened except for a small reading lamp perched on the piano to illuminate the score, which Richter insisted on using as he aged. His subdued playing was sometimes called eccentric, but I would reserve that term for the twilight period. Likewise, the person we meet in Richter, the Enigma, represents only one facet of the man. Hearing the old Richter end the film by saying “I don’t like myself” is heartbreaking. It isn’t credible given the joy he radiated on stage in his long, long prime.
Where to begin
A brisk overview isn’t the same as knowing where to start with such a voluminous artist. Philips has two gems to astonish the new listener — the famous 1958 recital from Sofia, Bulgaria that contains notorious coughing from the audience and a blasting heating system but also Richter’s towering Pictures at an Exhibition, minus the teasing tinkering that Horowitz added to Mussorgsky’s score. In recommending this recording, I am passing on the thrill it sent through me when I was eighteen and had never heard of Richter.
Philips’ other gem is Richter’s phenomenal account of the two Liszt concertos plus the B minor Sonata. Add to this the Brahms Concerto no. 2 already mentioned, and we’re off to the races. I feel guilty offering generalizations about Richter, since the first rule is that no simple category can hold him and is more likely to embalm him. There are those who reject Richter for being too aggressive (he could bang and even hector, and in the early Fifties his piano seemed to be equipped with a pedal for forte and another for acceleration — the Steinway as Maserati). He could also be nervous and impatient, leading to blurry passages and dropped notes. To serious detractors, Richter’s Chopin was spoken in a foreign language, and his Debussy, too. But if we’re pursuing that metaphor, he never spoke Esperanto — every composer was expressed uniquely.
As highest praise, I would call Richter a musician guided by pure instinct. He hated musical analysis, and if he scorned the notes on the page, it was purely because ink spots aren’t music. With consummate artists, our praise isn’t for them or for the reader. It’s for ourselves, shining a light on the bounding spirit that great music arouses. Richter had an angelic smile, telling us where he came from and where he was going. Happily, angels don’t dislike themselves, no matter how often they’ve been called into hell.