Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter (March 20, 1915 – August 1, 1997) was a Russian pianist known for the depth of his interpretations, virtuoso technique, and vast repertoire. He is considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.
Richter was born near Zhytomyr, in the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine). His father, Teofil Danilovich Richter (1872–1941), was a German expatriate pianist, organist, and composer who had studied in Vienna. His mother, Anna Pavlovna (née Moskaleva; 1893–1963), was from a landowning family, and at one point had been a pupil of her future husband. In 1918, when Richter's parents were in Odessa, the Civil War separated them from their son, and Richter moved in with his aunt Tamara. He lived with her from 1918 to 1921, and it was then that his interest in art first manifested itself: he first became interested in painting, which his aunt taught him.
In 1921 the family was reunited, and the Richters moved to Odessa, where Teofil taught at the Odessa Conservatory and, briefly, worked as organist of a Lutheran church. In early 1920s Richter became interested in music (as well as other art forms such as cinema, literature, and theatre) and started studying piano. Unusually, he was largely self-taught. His father only gave him a basic education in music, and so did one of his father's pupils, a Czech harpist.
Even at an early age, Richter was an excellent sight-reader and regularly practised with local opera and ballet companies. He developed a lifelong passion for opera, vocal and chamber music that found its full expression in the festivals he established in Grange de Meslay, France, and in Moscow, at the Pushkin Museum. At age 15, he started to work at the Odessa Opera, where he accompanied the rehearsals.
On March 19, 1934, Richter gave his first recital, at the Engineers' Club of Odessa; but he did not formally start studying piano until three years later, when he decided to seek out Heinrich Neuhaus, a famous pianist and piano teacher, at the Moscow Conservatory. During Richter's audition for Neuhaus (at which he performed Chopin's Ballade No. 4), Neuhaus 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 acknowledging that he taught Richter "almost nothing."
Early in his career, Richter also tried his hand at composing, and it even appears that he played some of his compositions during his audition for Neuhaus. He gave up composition shortly after moving to Moscow. Years later, Richter explained this decision as follows: "Perhaps the best way I can put it is that I see no point in adding to all the bad music in the world".
By the beginning of World War II, Richter's parents' marriage had failed and his mother had fallen in love with another man. Because Richter's father was a German, he was under suspicion by the authorities and a plan was made for the family to flee the country. Due to her romantic involvement, his mother did not want to leave and so they remained in Odessa. In August 1941 his father was arrested and later found guilty of espionage, being sentenced to death on 6 October 1941. Richter didn't speak to his mother again until shortly before her death nearly 20 years later in connection with his first US tour.
In 1945, Richter met and accompanied in recital the soprano Nina Dorliak. Richter and Dorliak thereafter remained companions until his death, although they never married. She accompanied Richter both in his complex life and career. She supported him in his last sickness, and died herself a few months later, on May 17, 1998.
It was very widely rumored that Richter was homosexual and that having a female companion provided a social front for his sexual orientation, because homosexuality was still widely seen as strongly taboo and could result in legal repercussions. Richter had a tendency to be private and withdrawn and was not open to interviews. He never publicly discussed his personal life until, in the last year of his life, filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon convinced him to be interviewed for a documentary.
Rise to Rame
In 1949 Richter won the Stalin Prize, which led to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe and China. He gave his first concerts outside the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1950.In 1952, Richter was invited to play Franz Liszt in a film based on the life of Mikhail Glinka, called Kompozitor Glinka . The title role was played by Boris Smirnov.
On February 18, 1952, Richter made his debut as a conductor (a role he never again assumed) when he led the world premiere of Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor, with Mstislav Rostropovich as the soloist.
In 1960, even though he had a reputation for being "indifferent" to politics, Richter defied the authorities when he performed at Boris Pasternak's funeral.(He had played Prokofiev's Violin Sonata No. 1 at Joseph Stalin's funeral in 1953, with David Oistrakh.)
Having received the Stalin and Lenin prizes and become People's Artist of the RSFSR, he gave his first tour concerts in the USA in 1960, and in England and France in 1961.
Tour in the West
The West first became aware of Richter through recordings made in the 1950s. One of Richter's first advocates in the West was Emil Gilels, who stated during his first tour of the United States that the critics (who were giving Gilels rave reviews) should "wait until you hear Richter."
Richter's first concerts in the West took place in May 1960, when he was allowed to play in Finland, and on October 15, 1960, in Chicago, where he played Brahms's Second Piano Concerto accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf, creating a sensation. In a review, noted Chicago Tribune music critic Claudia Cassidy, who was known for her unkind reviews of established artists, recalled Richter first walking on stage hesitantly, looking vulnerable (as if about to be "devoured"), but then sitting at the piano and dispatching "the performance of a lifetime". Richter's 1960 tour of the United States culminated in a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Richter disliked performing in the United States and the high expectations of American audiences. Following a 1970 incident at Carnegie Hall in New York City, when Richter's performance alongside David Oistrakh was disrupted by anti-Soviet protests, Richter vowed never to return.Rumors of a planned return to Carnegie Hall surfaced in the last years of Richter's life, although it is not clear if there was any truth behind them.
In 1961, Richter played for the first time in London. His first recital, pairing works of Haydn and Prokofiev, was received with hostility by British critics. Notably, Neville Cardus concluded that Richter's playing was "provincial", and wondered why Richter had been invited to play in London, given that London had plenty of "second class" pianists of its own. Following a July 18, 1961, concert, where Richter performed both of Liszt's piano concertos, the critics reversed course.
In 1963, after searching in the Loire Valley, France, for a venue suitable for a music festival, Richter discovered La Grange de Meslay several kilometres north of Tours. The festival was established by Richter and became an annual event.
In 1970, Richter visited Japan for the first time, traveling across Siberia by railway and boat as he disliked flying. He played Beethoven, Schumann, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Bartók and Rachmaninoff, as well as works by Mozart and Beethoven with Japanese orchestras. He visited Japan eight times.
While he very much enjoyed performing for an audience, Richter hated planning concerts years in advance, and in later life took to playing at very short notice in small, most often darkened halls, with only a small lamp lighting the score. Richter said that this setting helped the audience focus on the music being performed, rather than on extraneous and irrelevant matters such as the performer's grimaces and gestures.
In 1981 Richter initiated the international musical festival December nights, held in the Pushkin Museum, which after his death in 1997 was renamed December Nights of Sviatoslav Richter. In 1986, Richter embarked on a six-month tour of Siberia with his beloved Yamaha piano, giving perhaps 150 recitals, at times performing in small towns that did not even have a concert hall. It is said that after one such concert, the members of the audience, who had never before heard classical music performed, gathered in the middle of the hall and started swaying from side to side to celebrate the performer. It is said that in his last years Richter contemplated giving concerts free of charge (although he never actually did so).
An anecdote illustrates Richter's approach to performance in the last decade of his life. After reading a biography of Charlemagne (he was an avid reader), Richter had his secretary send a telegram to the director of the theater in Aachen, Charlemagne's favoured residence city and his burial place, stating "The Maestro has read a biography of Charlemagne and would like to play at Aquisgrana (Aachen)". The performance took place shortly thereafter.
As late as 1995, Richter continued to perform some of the most demanding pieces in the pianistic repertoire, including Ravel's Miroirs cycle, Prokofiev's Second Sonata and Chopin's études and Ballade No. 4.
Richter's last recorded orchestral performance was of three Mozart concerti in 1994 with the Japan Shinsei Symphony Orchestra conducted by his old friend Rudolf Barshai.
Richter's last recital was a private gathering in Lübeck, Germany, on March 30, 1995. The program consisted of two Haydn sonatas and Reger's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Beethoven, a piece for two pianos, which Richter performed with pianist Andreas Lucewicz.
Richter died at Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow from a heart attack on August 1, 1997 aged 82. He had been suffering from depression due to an inability to perform caused by changes in his hearing that altered his perception of pitch.At the time of his death, he was rehearsing Schubert's, D. 459.
As Richter once put it, "My repertory runs to around eighty different programs, not counting chamber works."His repertoire ranged from Handel and Bach to Szymanowski, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Britten, and Gershwin.
It is perhaps instructive, although baffling, to note the works he did not play: they include Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's Waldstein and Moonlight sonatas and Fourth and Fifth piano concertos, Schubert's A-major sonata D. 959, Prokofiev's Third piano concerto, Chopin's first piano concerto and second sonata and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
Richter worked tirelessly to learn new pieces. For instance, in the late 1980s, he learned Brahms's Paganini and Handel Variations, and in the 1990s, several of Debussy's études and Gershwin, and works by Bach and Mozart that he had not previously included in his programs.
Central to his repertoire were the works of Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, J. S. Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Prokofiev and Debussy.He is said to have learned the second book of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier by heart in one month.
He gave the premiere of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, which he learned in four days, and No. 9, which Prokofiev dedicated to Richter. Apart from his solo career, he also performed chamber music with partners such as Mstislav Rostropovich, Rudolf Barshai, David Oistrakh, Oleg Kagan, Yuri Bashmet, Natalia Gutman, Zoltán Kocsis, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Benjamin Britten and members of the Borodin Quartet. Richter also often accompanied singers such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, Galina Pisarenko and his long-time companion Nina Dorliak.
Richter also conducted the premiere of Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra. This was his sole appearance as a conductor. The soloist was Rostropovich, to whom the work was dedicated. Prokofiev also wrote his 1949 Cello Sonata in C for Rostropovich, and he and Richter premiered it in 1950. Richter himself was a passable cellist, and Rostropovich was a good pianist; at one concert in Moscow at which he accompanied Rostropovich on the piano, they exchanged instruments for part of the program.
Despite his large discography, Richter disliked the recording process,and most of Richter's recordings originate from live performances. Thus, his live recitals from Moscow (1948), Warsaw (1954 and 1972), Sofia (1958), New York City (1960), Leipzig (1963), Aldeburgh (multiple years), Prague (multiple years), Salzburg (1977) and Amsterdam (1986), are hailed as some of the finest documents of his playing, as are other myriad live recordings issued prior to and since his death on labels including Music & Arts, BBC Legends, Philips, Russia Revelation, Parnassus, and more recently Ankh Productions.
Other critically acclaimed live recordings by Richter include performances of Scriabin's selected études, preludes and sonatas (multiple performances, different years), Schumann's C major Fantasy (multiple performances, different years), Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata (Moscow, 1960), Schubert's B-flat Sonata (multiple performances, different years), Ravel's Miroirs (Prague, 1965), Liszt's B minor Sonata (multiple performances, 1965–66), Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata (multiple performances, 1975) and selected preludes by Rachmaninoff (multiple performances, different years) and Debussy (multiple performances, different years).
However, despite his professed hatred for the studio, Richter took the recording process quite seriously.For instance, after a long recording session for Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, for which he had used a Bösendorfer piano, Richter listened to the tapes and, dissatisfied with his performance, told the recording engineer "Well, I think we'll remake it on the Steinway after all".Similarly, during a recording session for Schumann's Toccata, Richter reportedly chose to play this piece (which Schumann himself considered "among the most difficult pieces ever written") several times in a row, without taking any breaks, in order to preserve the spontaneity of his interpretation.
According to Falk Schwartz and John Berrie's 1983 article "Sviatoslav Richter – A Discography", in the 1970s Richter announced his intention of recording his complete solo repertoire "on some 50 discs". This "complete" Richter project did not come to fruition, however, although twelve LPs worth of recordings were pressed between 1970 and 1973 and were subsequently re-issued (in CD format) by Olympia (various composers, 10 CDs) and RCA (Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier).
In 1961, Richter's recording with Erich Leinsdorf and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance – Concerto or Instrumental Soloist. That recording is still considered a landmark (despite Richter's dissatisfaction with it), as are his studio recordings of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, Liszt's two Piano Concertos, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto and Schumann's Toccata, among many others.