Yet he was always an enigma - the title that the director Bruno Monsaingeon wisely chose for a film portrait of him, made in 1998. We knew strangely little, during his lifetime, of his personality, his attitudes, his private life, let alone his politics. At times it could almost seem that Richter was a blank slate onto whom were projected the hopes, fears, aspirations, loves, hatreds and musical attitudes of generation after generation of pianists and pianophiles.
His playing to some was a force of nature, to others almost too perfect; to some brutal, to others overrefined. The truth went beyond the lot. The legend of his performances have extended to disc after disc issued and reissued: some are of genius, among them the Sofia Recital, recorded live in 1958, which contains perhaps the most intense and visionary account of the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition that one could ever hope to hear. This was my only choice - my only possible choice - when I did a 'Building a Library' article on the work for BBC Music Magazine a few years ago. Here's an extract:
This towering Russian pianist made it his mission to convey Mussorgsky exactly as written, but to embody in his performance of the unadulterated score all the emotion and philosophical great-heartedness that others try to achieve (usually unsuccessfully) through embellishment.
Richter regarded Ravel’s transcription as “an abomination, a decorative travesty of the most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music”. His own interpretation offers what the filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon described as a “wild and intractable purity”. It’s some of the most extraordinary piano playing you could hope to hear. His ‘Catacombae’ magically transforms every chord into a great cave, seeming to achieve that supposed pianistic impossibility, a crescendo in mid-resonance. Baba Yaga has a terrifying, pagan, monolithic power – contrast this with the delicacy of the unhatched chicks and the innocence of the Tuilieries children. In the grand finale the radiant carillon of Kiev and the evocation of Russian orthodox choirs behind cathedral screens are unforgettable. There’s a conceptual scale to Richter that goes beyond what most pianists can imagine: he throws himself into Mussorgsky’s truth and fuses with it.
Behind the Iron Curtain, Richter spoke perhaps more openly than he ever did in the West. The byways of the Internet have turned up some gems, notably this blog that reproduces some fascinating material. Here is an extract of an interview from Budapest in 1958 (retranslated by Zsolt Bognár):
Interviewer: "Please tell us about yourself. How do you live? Where did you spend your summer?" Richter: "I have a small house on the river Oka. I lived there during the summer, close to the water and far from people, four kilometers from the nearest village. There I was surrounded only by nature, the forests, fields, the air... this I enjoy tremendously. There everything is natural, tranquil, and I have no distractions or worries. One can bathe in the nude. If a thunderstorm comes, one experiences the elements very close-up: the house is of wooden construction, and when the rain patters on the roof, to be inside is like being in a dream."
I nearly met Richter (though not quite) when I was about eleven years old. My then piano teacher, Patsy Toh, was married to the pianist Fou Ts'ong and they lived in a big house in a Hampstead side street. Each weekend my dad would take me up there for a lesson and usually would wait in the car for an hour while Patsy put my unruly self through scales, studies and grade exam pieces. The Steinways were on the ground floor; Patsy taught upstairs in a smaller studio. Ts'ong, who had made a dramatic defection from China, knew Richter well from earlier times. One day I pitched up for a lesson to hear some exquisite Schubert emanating from behind a closed door off the hallway. "That's Sviatoslav Richter," Patsy whispered, ushering me towards the stairs. She remarked that shaking hands with him was like holding a beefsteak. I may not have known the full significance of the figure in the lounge, but I knew it was something that would interest my father, so before we started my lesson I zipped out, banged on the car window and said, "Dad, Richter's in there, practising!" Dad leapt out of the car and dashed up to the house; I don't think I ever saw him run quite so fast as then. Upstairs I delivered Hanon with rather sweaty palms.
The one time I was ever lucky enough to hear him in recital must have been his last performance at the Royal Festival Hall - given in darkness, but for one angle-poise lamp on the piano. He began with an account of the Schubert G major Sonata in which the first chord went on for so long that I thought we were all going to die (and yes, it was symptomatic of the movement's entire tempo that day). To end, though, there was Prokofiev: I remember the numbness and incredulity that passed through me at the thought that this man not only was friends with the composer, but gave the first performance of several of his masterpieces and was now bringing us all into direct contact with that history as his notes filled our ears. [UPDATE: A kind friend tells me - and sends proof - that on this occasion Richter played the Sonata No.4. I remember it, and wrote about it earlier, as No.7. Clearly I am mistaken, and therefore have amended this post accordingly - yet very oddly I can hear it in mind and memory as No.7.... well, 1989 was a while ago. The programme also included the Schumann Nachtstücke.]
Richter performed rarely in London in his later years, but he would sometimes do what we'd now called pop-up concerts. Yes - Richter would pop up. These very occasional surprise concerts would take place in churches, some like St James Piccadilly, others off the beaten track; they would be announced at the last minute and word of mouth would be spread by his fans, who'd drop everything and run; and the concerts, by all accounts, would be full, and intimate, and pure, free of media attention, social desirability or anything extraneous to passion for music. Something about this remains both remarkable and wonderful. I can think of several pianists who I wish would follow suit.
Bruno Monsaingeon's film, made when Richter was ageing and already ill, is in many ways a sad portrait, deeply moving, occasionally astonishing, and empathetic in the extreme. As we remember Richter this week, do see it.