Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Finding Richter

I know of two books by musicians from the former Soviet Union that give us a glimpse of the artist, but also into the lives of artists and society in general in that imprisoned society. Galina by Galina Vishnevskaya and Testimony: The Memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich by Solomon Volkov. In those two volumes, both authors were scathing in their criticism of the lies, hypocrisy, cruelty, unfairness, and, often, stupidity within Soviet society.

But in this latest book about a musician of the Soviet Union, Sviatoslav Richter – pianist, by Karl Aage Rasmussen (Boston University Press, Boston), finally gives us a peek into the life of one of the great pianists of the 20th century. Born on March 20th, 1915 in Zhitomir, Sviatoslav Richter led a sheltered childhood, a developed “veritable hatred of school, ball playing, sports competitions, and anything else that smacks of competition or espirt de corps.” The writer went on to say that “Richter’s lifelong dislike of any form of competition, in art, politics, love, and daily life, presumably has its roots here.” In this way, Richter has a similar outlook as pianist Glenn Gould, who also disdained competition and any form of competitiveness. Like Gould, Richter was an iconoclast who did things exactly his way – in choice of repertoire, pianos, where to perform and where not to perform, and in how he approached each work he played.

Teofil Richter, the pianist’s father, taught piano to the Consul’s children, and Sviatoslav Richter himself performed at cultural evenings at the consulate, to the extent that he played in a memorial service for the death of Paul von Hindenburg. Because of this close association with the German community in the Soviet Union, and with the German sounding last name, Teofil Richter “was arrested and shot by the secret police before the Germans and the Romanian Fascists reached Odessa in 1941.” Another dark chapter in Richter’s life involved his relationship with his mother, who escaped with her lover Sergei Kondratiev (who was of German ancestry) to Germany after the war. Because of Richter’s name in the music world, Kondratiev later even changed his own name to Richter, and pretended to be Teofil Richter’s younger brother. The pianist abhorred Kondratiev as a man, and considered that “his mother’s deception…the great tragedy of his life.”

The trials and tribulations of the composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev within the Soviet Union are well known to historians. The author devotes two chapters, one on the pianist’s relationship with each of the two great composers. Rasmussen also gives us much insight into the relationship with Heinrich Neuhaus, Richter’s great teacher and mentor, with his colleagues, the violinist David Oistrakh, pianist Emil Gilels, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and composer Benjamin Britten.

Most interesting is the pianist’s relationship with Nina Dorliak, whom many (myself included) considered to be his wife. From the book, I discovered that Richter was homosexual, and his cohabitation with Dorliak (they were never married) became a convenient front for Richter, since homosexuality was, to say the least, frowned upon in Soviet society. Eventually Dorliak became essentially someone Richter could not live without, since she travelled with him, took care of every single detail of his day-to-day living. The relationship between Richter and Nina Dorliak lasted more than fifty years (certainly longer than many marriages), and Dorliak only survived less than a year after Richter’s death.

Sviatoslav Richter was completely apolitical, and this one fact perhaps explains why he never considered living anywhere other than Russia, even during the darkest period of the Stalin era. After his first tour of the United States, pianist Rudolf Serkin offered to find Richter an apartment in New York if Richter decided not to return to the Soviet Union. Richter replied, “My countryman value you highly; if you wish to leave the United States, I can find an apartment in Moscow for you in less than fifteen minutes!” According to Rasmussen, “It takes a dearth of imagination to fail to understand how and why it was (and is) possible for people at all levels of society to find a totalitarian regime repulsive and, at the same time, acknowledge it as a sine qua non; it is narrow-minded to overlook how and why citizens in an unfree society can be both its victims and its supporters.” Perhaps this might explains the current attitude of people from Communist China or North Korea towards their own respective countries. And perhaps, like Richter, they simply see such a society, such a way of living, “as a condition of life.”

I count myself extremely fortunate to have heard both Richter and Emil Gilels – the other great Soviet pianist of the same generation - in concert. The playing of both pianists made an indelible impression in my mind. Of the two pianists, Gilels is the one more familiar to concert audiences, at least in North America, simply because he used to give concerts in the United States and Canada with some regularity. Richter played in the United States, a country he considered “vulgar”, only three times in his life. In fact, his dislike for long term planning led him to eventually form his own music festival, the Fêtes Musicales en Touraine in France, where he was treated like royalty by locals. In his own festival, Richter “enjoyed the freedom of giving concerts where no one could predict what he would play or when. He often surprised his audience with a sudden, unannounced concert or with cancellations” in his own festival, and in concerts in Japan, a country he admired and enjoyed visiting.

Rasmussen also devotes a chapter discussing Richter’s musical legacy, namely, his large and comprehensive discography. Richter’s many recordings consist of studio recordings with major labels, radio transmissions by dozens of broadcasting services, and “pirate” recordings of unknown origin. As the author rightly points out, it is impossible to discuss even the highlights all of Richter’s recordings. There are discussions of his major recordings of Beethoven sonatas (including a single recording of the massive Hammerklavier), Haydn sonatas, Liszt concerti and solo pieces, Handel Suites, and of course Bach’s two volumes of the Well Tempered Clavier. Richter was not hesitant to explore unusual repertoire, and some of these include Glazunov’s Concerto in F Minor, Dvorak’s Piano Concerto, Carl Maria von Weber’s Sonata No. 3, Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto, and Paul Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, Piano Concerto, and Kammermusik No. 2.

Of Richter’s many recordings, the author writes that they “emphasize the life-affirming fact that a musical performance is always both spirit and life, both soul and body.” Of the dubious sound of some of the pianists older and “pirated” recordings, the author adds that “the unique physical presence in Richter’s music keeps him wonderfully alive, in every sense of the word, even when he speaks to us through the fragile memory of an antiquated technology.”

For me, this book is, to date, perhaps the most comprehensive telling of the life and art of the great pianist. For a more intimate, if a bit one-sided, view of Sviatoslav Richter, one can do no better than Bruno Monsaingeon’s superb film Richter: The Enigma. In the video (alas not available on DVD in North America, since my VHS tape just broke from repeated viewing!), one sees and hears a continuing monologue by the pianist, his views on a variety of subjects, interspersed with precious footage (many excerpts from Soviet television and film archives in garish colours) of Richter’s performances.

More than a decade after his death, Sviatoslav Richter continues to fascinate us, as a man and as a musician, an artist. The more I listen to recordings from his vast catalogue, the more I find it tragic that, in our age of mass marketing of music and a sense of sameness in music-making, we no longer have an artist with the originality, the daring, and the stupendous imagination of a Sviatoslav Richter. Lovers of music, admirers of Sviatoslav Richter, and those interested in the musical life of the Soviet Union, would find this book most rewarding, revealing, and interesting.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Musical Journey

When record producer Walter Legge tried to convince conductor Carlo Maria Giulini to record a certain work, arguing that it would be good for his career, the already legendary conductor responded, with, I imagine, some disdain in his voice, “What is this word ‘career’?”

Pianist Lang Lang probably thinks of little else other than his career. After reading Journey of a Thousand Miles, Lang Lang’s memoir, given to me by a friend, I was filled with a sense of sadness; sadness at an artist who devotes so much of his considerable ability and obvious talent, not towards his own musical and artistic growth, but merely towards advancing his career. And sadness that this is an artist who symbolizes what most people would consider the future of serious music. It is also presumptuous and arrogant for an artist in his early thirties to think that a look back at his life is warranted. I am sure his legion of fans all over the world would disagree with me. Perhaps Lang Lang is taking lessons from pop star Justin Bieber, who published his memoir at an even earlier age.

If success in classical music is measured by record sales, concert attendance, and exposure in the press, Lang Lang can probably be considered to be the most successful musician on the planet.

It all began with Lang Lang’s father, a musician of the Erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument, who himself was denied entry to the conservatory, and ended up playing in the Chinese Air Force band. Lang Lang’s mother was also musical, and dreamt of becoming a singer or dancer. In the pianist’s own words, “As a child of two musicians who had had their ambitions and hopes shattered, I was born of great expectations – ones that both guided me and led me to great success.” Indeed the word success seems to be the leitmotif of the entire book and of Lang Lang’s life.

After discovering that his son is musically talented, Mr. Lang senior inflicted upon his son a regiment of practice that can only be described as inhumane and downright abusive. The approach of his father, again according to Lang Lang, “had to do with winning, winning, winning.” The only objective is to win every competition, and the phrase “to be number one” also appears frequently throughout this rather thin volume. When the pianist was rejected by a teacher, his father screamed at his son and offered him a choice of killing himself by taking poison, or by jumping off a building. I can only imagine what such an upbringing does to the psyche of a young person, let alone one who is sensitive.

Much of the book is devoted to the pianist’s string of triumphs in piano competitions, in China and then abroad, culminating in his winning of the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan, his success at the Curtis Institute of Music, and then even greater success with major conductors and orchestras the world over. Indeed, more than half of the book reads like a litany of accomplishments, almost like a World War II fighter pilot bragging about the number of enemy planes he shot down. It gets a little tiring after a while.

The young pianist has often been criticized for the flamboyance of his gestures while he plays. No one is able to judge whether, or how much, his rather extravagant gestures contribute toward his music-making. Maybe we can get some insight into the pianist’s gestures from his own words:

I thought of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and in my mind I transformed their most brilliant moves into my playing: I imagined Jordan’s slam dunk as the big beginning of the Tchaikovsky chords; I thought of Tiger Woods’s swing while playing the octaves.

Well, whatever works for him, I guess.

In spite of the tension in their relationship, Lang Lang and his father eventually did reconcile their differences, to the extent that the two played a short duet at Lang Lang’s Carnegie Hall debut. Mr. Lang senior, the failed musician, made it to Carnegie Hall after all - Mr. Lang senior finally realized his own dream through his son.

In the final paragraph of his book, the pianist confesses that he has “always dreamed big.” Yes, Lang Lang, you have realized your big dreams. But, as violinist Malcolm Lowe says, music is not a business, and that music “can’t flourish without the idea that it is a gift.”

My only wish for Lang Lang is that he would one day devote his great abilities to deepening his understanding of music, to becoming a musician, and not merely a pianist who can play fast and loud. There is nothing at all wrong with success, but success and career do not guarantee deepening musicianship, no matter how loud or long the applause is.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Summer Night With Will

The summer months in Vancouver are slow when it comes to Classical music. We out in the wilds of Vancouver do not have major summer music festivals like Tanglewood or Ravinia. What we do have, for the last 23 years, is a wonderful Shakespeare festival, presenting four of the bard’s masterpieces every season. Other than the plays we have come to know and love, we also get to see the more unfamiliar plays by Shakespeare, like Timon of Athens and this year’s King John.

Last evening, we saw The Taming of the Shrew, a play I often thought of as potentially controversial.  Kate, the older daughter of a wealthy citizen of Padua, is famous for her fiery temper. Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, attracted by Kate’s large dowry, resolves to take her as his wife. After much verbal jostling between the two and “psychological warfare” on the part of Petruchio, he succeeded in “taming” Kate, who became in the end the most obedient wife among all the female characters in the story.

Other than superb acting by all the players of the company, the director, Meg Roe, managed to make the play not only entertaining but a moving experience at the end. In her notes, the director wrote that the play is about belonging. In her eloquent words:

We see people disguise and plot and scheme to belong to one another. We also see two people who categorically do not belong. Who fit with no one. Who rail against the norm. And then who, suddenly, unexpectedly, find a match in one another. A perfect fit. And miraculously, after pushing and fighting and resisting: they belong. They enter into a bargain and a partnership based on trust. True obedience. And fun.

Indeed, the way the play was presented made it a commentary not only on human nature, but on marriage. In the process, Kate finds not only true love, but rediscovers a sense of her womanhood, and the marriage between the two becomes one of mutual self-giving. To me, Kate’s beautiful final monologue, her views on the relationship between husbands and wives, almost parallels the passage from Chapter 5 of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, where the evangelist asks wives to be “submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church.” In almost the same breath, and before the men become too giddy, Saint Paul admonishes husbands to “love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” It takes a Shakespeare and Saint Paul to remind us, in the 21st century, that the concept of love is far deeper and much more than a mere sharing of physical space, finances and, perhaps, chores.

Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew reminds me of Mozart’s opera Così fan Tutte, another work of art accused of being politically incorrect, even immoral. Two young men decide to put their lovers to a test. They tell their lovers that they are going off to war. In actuality, they came back in disguise as two Albanians (only in opera!) to woe their respective lovers, who soon surrendered to their amorous advances. In the end, everything is of course forgiven, and everyone lives happily ever after. Or do they? In Così, Mozart is revealing to us the changeable, or impermanent, nature of life, and that nothing in life, least of all human nature, ever remains the same.

We should remember that in Shakespeare as well as in Mozart, the female characters are very often far cleverer than their male counterparts. What the playwright and composer give us, in works like Taming of the Shrew and Così fan Tutte, are glimpses of human nature, something in ourselves that perhaps we are not even aware of, once we see pass the superficiality of the plot line, and gender differences.