Richter at 100

At the masterclass with Ron Carter yesterday in Hartford, I mentioned the Sviatoslav Richter centennial, saying something the effect that Richter may have been the greatest 20th-century classical pianist. Ron interrupted me right away: "Yeah, but don't forget Walter Gieseking."

Fair enough. There are lots of wonderful classical pianists. Comparing them is usually pointless. I respect anybody who is genuinely competent in that esoteric profession.

Still, something about Richter sticks out. After Ron's interjection, I've been mulling over why I think Richter is so great. 

My conclusion is rather obvious: Richter was of his time. He was 20th-century. He was an unrepentant modernist. 

Everything that Richter played was informed by world war, by atonality, by Freud, by airplane travel, by recorded sound. The horrors and delights of his era were always present.

The vast Richter discography is complicated further by multiple versions of key pieces. One would need an extra lifetime to study the complete Richter on CD.

Off the top of my head, a selection of personal favorites:

Bach. From WTC II, the A minor prelude and fugue from the Phillips studio set. The prelude is somber (his teacher Heinrich Neuhaus suggested that especially chromatic Bach be played "without tone"), the crucifixion fugue strikes like a bolt of lightning.

Handel. Richter mentored several young musicians. When he got interested in the young and brilliant Andrei Gavrilov, Richter had them alternate on Handel suites. Nobody plays these suites on piano much – harpsichordists have a better chance – but hearing them as tag-team performance art makes them more accessible. On video, Richter starts the familiar "Harmonious Blacksmith" with the loudest, ugliest, longest low E imaginable. Before continuing, he stares at Gavrilov, who looks around the room in an unconcerned or even dour fashion. Russian modernist art, via Handel.

Mozart. Nope. Hard to "take over" Mozart. He doesn't fight back, so you've got to enter that space with grace. Surely there's a decent Richter Mozart track somewhere, though.

Haydn. The G minor sonata, Hob.XVI:44, is rendered with existential sadness. (Early 60s DG.) 

Beethoven. A key composer for Richter. It's all great. My offhand selection is a less-familiar sonata, the two-movement Op. 54 in F major on EMI. The opening minuet has gleaming sonority and ornamentation. Perhaps the octave outbursts are almost too loud, but that's Richter for you. The answering toccata goes like the wind. A perfect work and perfect for Richter.

Since Ludvig was so important to Slava, I'll offer one more: the live Diabelli Variations on Phillips, rather late, I think 1980's. Even the out-of-tune piano seems to play a part in declaiming a passionate message. This was my first Richter record and my first Diabelli; frankly I find almost everyone else pretty boring.

Weber. I believe Horowitz was the one who started the fashion of looking for classical-era pieces by Clementi and other minor composers. Not to be outdone, Emil Gilels played some Clementi better than Horowitz and also added Weber's second sonata. Richter's retaliated by unearthing the Weber third. It's a powerful enough work, especially under Richter's strong hands. The point is clear: If we listen to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, we should listen to Clementi, Weber, Dussek, Hummel, and Czerny as well. 

Schubert. Richter may still be somewhat controversial in long sonatas where he takes unusually slow tempos. I understand the objection; frankly I'd usually rather relax with Clifford Curzon or Wilhelm Kempff myself. On the studio recording of the intimate Allegretto in C minor D915, Richter's speed is more "Largo" than "Allegretto" but the emotion is starkly compelling. I'm not so sure of Schubert's awkward counterpoint in the brief canonic section, but if you can hear it "à la Shostakovich" that certainly helps! 

Chopin. Richter played lots of Chopin but for me it can be like his Mozart, either too brutal or too straight. In the centennial celebrations I have seen several mentions of his performances of Chopin Ballades. This surprises me, I will have to go back and re-listen.

My Richter Chopin selection is an obvious one: On the essential documentary Richter the Enigma the only complete performances are of Chopin études. The earlier performance of the C sharp minor Op. 10 is white heat. Chopin would have been astonished to hear the 20th century in action with all of its brutal power. The later era étude is the "Winter Wind" in A minor. Here we can see the ultimate professional: An old man who has played thousands of recitals casually sits down and delivers this classic fingerbuster.

Schumann. One of the great LPs in my collection is the recital of César Franck and Robert Schumann on Monitor. I believe Schumann's Humoreske was barely played until Richter discovered it for modern audiences. You want to talk about your modernist pieces! The Humoreske doesn't make sense unless you have a grotesque, occasionally almost military aesthetic. The rhythms are also exceedingly complex and a technical challenges formidable. Richter solves all interpretive issues.

Brahms. The pianist didn't like his recording of the Second Piano Concerto with Leinsdorf in Boston. It's true that there are some really notable finger slips. However, like so many others, I am bowled over by the recording's raw passion. The first two moments are especially marvelous.

Liszt. The Liszt selection is obvious, the étude "Feux Follets" from at the legendary Sofia recital from 1958. It's not just the speed, it's the sonority which is so magical. 

Franck. From the Monitor LP mentioned earlier, Prelude, Chorale and Fugue is the dead intersection between German and French music. There's a whiff of the sentimental and the falsely religious about this work, something like Busoni's plumped up transcriptions of Bach. However I never have a problem with this aesthetic if a truly great pianist is in residence. I can't imagine anyone playing this work better than Slava does here.

Debussy. Again for me an obvious choice: Estampes, the live recording from early 60s on DG. Somehow the piano sounds just like the gamelan Debussy was inspired by. 

Hindemith. Apparently the composer himself didn't think much of his Suite 1922. I don't know why: For me, it's his best piano piece. I admit I am probably influenced by Richter's phenomenal recording from late in life. He beats the piano into submission but in this context that is perfectly okay.

Tchaikovsky. Mussorgsky. Scriabin. Prokofiev. Shostakovich. Stravinsky. Rachmaninoff.  Richter's performances of composers from his homeland have special merit. 

Tchaikovsky's solo piano music is frequently trivial; however, the Grand Sonata in G becomes a major work in Richter's hands. 

Mussorgsky's Pictures of An Exhibition from the 1958 Sofia recital is Richter 101, frequently showing up on lists of "the best piano records ever made."  

I don't know Slava's many famous Scriabin recordings as well as I should. These days when I listen to Scriabin, I'm probably listening to Sofroninsky. One hopes that the familiar anecdote is true: When the pianists met, Sofroninsky greeted the other, "Genius!" to which Richter shot back, "God!"

Richter knew both Shostakovich and Prokofiev and his biography is often focused on those associations.

While not so familiar with either of these composers nor Richter's contribution to their discographies, I am impressed with the Shostakovich Piano Quintet which shows Richter's sublime abilities as a chamber musician. The insane brilliance of the Prokofiev Second Sonata is also inarguable.

Prokofiev 2 was composed just before Richter was born. Its mechanized ironies are totally of the 20th century, and was totally understood by the pianist when he learned it a couple of decades later. This aesthetic was Richter's birthright.

As significant as Shostakovich and Prokofiev are as composers, something else may have been even more important to the young Slava than the music itself: Actually working with great composers, seeing how they made new music that related intimately to current events. Richter somehow took that attitude along when exploring the whole history of piano repertoire, making everything he touched modern, exciting, and sad. 

Richter didn't record much Stravinsky. The most intriguing item is the piano concerto Movements. This is arguably Stravinsky's most recondite piece, and it shows just how curious Richter was about everything that he gave this unfriendly beast a try.

I want to conclude on an up note, so let's end with Rachmaninoff. 

In general Richter was an ideal Rachmaninoff interpreter. It would be hard to make a list of recommended Rachmaninoff recordings without Richter in there somewhere.

Was Rachmaninoff a truly great composer? I'm not sure; many others wonder this question as well. But perhaps because Rach always isn't the very best music, there is extra room for re-creative genius to take over and deliver a melding of composer and interpreter.

The collection of Preludes and Etudes-Tableux on Olympia from 1971 and 1983 is essential for any piano library. Four tracks come to mind right away: The heraldic B-flat major, the proto-Prokofiev F sharp minor, the Tolstoy carriage of B minor, and the Etude 7 in C minor, the one that unleashes a great torrent of bells near the end. The bells seem joyous at first, but then it becomes clear that happiness will be denied. The bells mark the passage of time, and mourn both the loss of old Russia and the birth of the 20th century.