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 FĂȘtes 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.

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