By Jacob Stockinger
As I am writing this, I am listening to one of the hundreds of recordings – both official and bootleg, both studio and live — made by the legendary pianist Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter (below): “Richter Rediscovered: The Carnegie Hall Recital of Dec. 26, 1966.”
Of course, you don’t ever need an excuse to listen to Richter (1915-1997). All you need is the desire to hear beautiful music piano music – solo, chamber and concerto — played in an arresting and original manner, an approach that takes risks that usually pay off but sometimes fail.
But this time I have an excellent excuse or, better, reason.
It is the new biography — “Sviatoslav Richter: Pianist” — by the Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen (Northeastern University Press, University Presses of New England, $40).
There is much to single out for praise in this new biography — too much in fact for one relatively short review.
But let’s start with some of the major points.
Richter’s fans probably know the video “Richter: The Enigma” by Bruno Monsaingeon, who also did videos of Glenn Gould. They may also know his book made of Richter’s own notebooks and transcriptions of conversations.
This book picks up from all that and uses more obscure sources to push the limits of what we know about this enigmatic and curiously charismatic pianist.
Start with the fact that, to my knowledge at least, this is the first biography that fully and openly discusses Richter being gay. Reading it, you find out about his 50-plus year alliance with a woman (singer Nina Dorliak) and about his male “escorts”; you find about his self-acceptance in a land where the government outlawed and punished homosexual behavior that was not discrete or invisible.
That alone makes this biography a fascinating addition, and a timely one.
Rasmussen also takes care to offer historical and political contexts, so one understands Richter’s avoidance of politics as well as his friendships and working relationship with the composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich and his relations with other dissident musicians such as Rostropovich. (He was hostile to fellow virtuoso Emil Gilels.)
One quickly understands Richter’s reluctance to take on the Soviet authorities or to remain close to his mother after his own father was tried and executed on a trumped-up charge of treason – and was perhaps betrayed by his own stepfather.
Thanks to careful research and a lot of interviews, Rasmussen debunks a lot of the myths and legends surrounding Richter, especially in his young years and his last years, when heart ills were closing in on his life.
Oh, to be sure, Rasmussen gets repetitive at times: one keeps hearing about Richter’s apolitical view of life, his fear of flying, his insistence that he was following the text and the composer’s intentions, even when he clearly wasn’t. And sometimes he is given to overwriting and hyperbole, especially when describing Richter’s distinctive playing.
But those are small flaws, quibbles really, in an otherwise well researched and well written biography that reveals the quirky psychology and aesthetic judgments that made Richter a phenomenon. It offers many telling anecdotes about small incidents, including how Richter got to play at Stalin’s funeral, and amusing details, including how Richter liked to celebrate with food and drink beyond his reputation as an ascetic.
It features a fairly thorough discography with comments, and an extensive index that allows the reader too to easily look up individual composers and works.
Rasmussen also seems to have a good sense of Richter’s many gifts, including his ability stretch time in Schubert especially, but also of his flaws as a much celebrated human being who paradoxically, like Moliere and Shakespeare, used the spotlight to keep his personal private life in the shadows.
The book is expensive, but it is well worth the money if you are a piano fan – or Richter fanatic. I found the 303 pages went by quickly and engagingly.
If you read it, let me know what you think of it. So far, I can’t find many reviews on the Internet and would love to know what others think.
The book deserves more attention than it might get simply because it is not published by a major commercial publisher. After all, it demystifies one of the most mysterious figures of modern music-makers, right down to his practice methods.
So here it is from The Ear to your ear: I highly recommend this new Richter biography and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Let me know what you think of the biography?
And what you think of Richter?
Do you have a favorite recording by him?
The Era wants to hear.
And in the meantime, until he does, what about an outstanding sample of Richter’s playing?
Here is Richter as his peak performing a difficult and virtuosic Chopin etude (Op. 10, No. 4 in C-sharp minor, marked Presto by the composer) that demonstrates his power, agility and clarity — even though he was almost exclusively self-taught:
And you can find a lot more at YouTube, although some videos of Richter playing have been deleted for copyright reasons.
For a short capsule biography and more photos, use this link: