Sviatoslav Richter Top Ten + Four



For a decade now we have been deprived of the physical presence of the man many consider the greatest pianist of the modern age. Fortunately, we can console ourselves by listening to his vast recorded legacy, for he was long perceived as a phenomenon and his performances were documented assiduously, if not always in high fidelity. There have been at least 200 Richter albums released (at least a few against his wishes), which come and go according to the whims and misfortunes of the music biz -- much more than the casual listener can sort out. I'll try to help with that, but first a look at Richter's life and career.

When Sviatoslav Richter gave his first recital, at age 19 (barely: it was on March 19, 1934 and he was born on March 20, 1915), he had not had a formal piano lesson yet, and wouldn't until 1937, when he began lessons with Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory. Neuhaus immediately called him a genius and later said that he had taught Richter nothing. Richter, however, credited him with teaching him tone production -- which, given Richter's tone, is really saying something. While still at the Conservatory, Richter gave the premiere of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 6 (1940), establishing an important relationship (Richter would go on to also premiere Nos. 7 and 9) and making a name for himself. With his transcendent talent, he could have been an immediate superstar, but his attitude confused the Soviet government, which distrusted him because, while Richter was born in Zhitomir in the Ukraine, and grew up mainly in Odessa, his pianist father was German -- and was executed by the Soviets during World War II.

Richter's run-ins with authority have assumed the status of hallowed legend. He refused to take the Conservatory's required courses in politics (and consequently was expelled twice, though Neuhaus used his influence to have Richter reinstated), not through political conviction but rather because he was resolutely apolitical and wouldn't just go through the motions. At the first (1958) International Tchaikovsky Piano competition, where Richter was a judge (and Soviet artists were expected to support their compatriots), he instead voted for Van Cliburn -- extravagantly so, giving him 100 points out of a possible 10 in every round. (Predictably, Richter received no further competition jury assignments.) Richter associated with other public figures distrusted by the authorities, and he played at Boris Pasternak's funeral. So the Soviet bureaucrats, afraid he would defect, didn't allow Richter to play outside Russia until 1950, or in the West until 1960, but his reputation preceded him through recordings and a famous comment by Emil Gilels, who when praised during a U.S. tour, responded, "Wait till you hear Richter."

When he toured the U.S. and Europe in 1960, Richter was greeted as a conquering hero by most. At the age of 45 -- remarkably late for any musician -- his international career had finally been launched. From then on, the Soviet bureaucrats allowed Richter more freedom, and he toured frequently and even founded an annual music festival in France in 1964. He became known as unpredictable, preferring to perform not on a schedule planned long in advance, but on the spur of the moment. His last recital was a private event in Germany ten days after his birthday in 1995. He'd had heart troubles for around a decade by then; he died on August 1, 1997.

Drawing on Richter's memories of his career, diaries from 1970 through 1995, and (only in the film, of course) performances Bruno Monsaingeon's documentary film Richter: The Enigma and the book that followed, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations (Princeton University Press, 2001), will fascinate and inform all who have come to love the pianist's work. Richter's tone could be majestically ringing and full-bodied or elegantly pearly. His interpretations were sometimes controversial (his slow tempos in some Schubert sonatas are notorious, for example, though he defended some of them by pointing to Schubert's own instructions in the scores), but their intense impact was undeniable. He had a spectacular piano technique and thus apparently felt little need for caution, "going for it" in stunning performances that rendered occasional wrong notes irrelevant. Even pianists of sharply differing personalities and tastes, such as Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, and Arthur Rubinstein, praised him profusely. Richter was the opposite of Gould, who retired from public performance to concentrate on studio recording.

While Richter was uncomfortable in the studio (he was a perfectionist but preferred complete takes to punched-in corrections, which sometimes made for exhaustive retakes), he did leave a considerable legacy of studio recordings. However, the vast majority of his recordings come from concert appearances, which were eagerly collected from the beginning of his international career. Nor are these necessarily "gray-area" releases; major labels captured some of his concerts in excellent sound starting with his 1960 U.S. tour, so feverish was interest in Richter.

Richter's repertoire was quite vast, but he resisted the tendency of recent decades -- presumably tied to the emergence of the LP's ability to contain longer stretches of music -- to play (much less record) all the works in a cycle. He much preferred to pick out the pieces he liked most, although even some of those he didn't play in public. For instance, of Rachmaninoff's famous Piano Concerto No. 3 he said, "I enjoy listening to the Third but I don't play it because I enjoy it so much as others play it," specifically citing Cliburn. (In other cases, he might say Gilels's performances made Richter performances superfluous.) This is true even in Beethoven: He played only two of the five concertos and only 22 of the 32 piano sonatas. The most notable exception is Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (see below).

Taken into account in my choice of prime Richter albums are relative quality within his legacy, historical importance, a balance of the composers most identified with him, recording quality, and -- sadly -- availability. I proceed in roughly chronological order. In recent years, important material has gone out of print, most regrettably a series on Praga and some magisterial performances on Music & Arts, so a few OOP items are mentioned at the end for intrepid collectors to seek. Also note that Universal has started reissuing, this time on its Decca label, a series of concert performances that Philips issued in the mid-1990s as Richter: The Authorised Recordings.

The Titanic Ten

Schumann: Piano Concerto; Introduction & Allegro appassionato; Novellette No. 1; Toccata; Waldszenen with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Witold Rowicki or Stanislaw Wislocki (Deutsche Grammophon)

These 1950s Deutsche Grammophon recordings immediately established Richter's innate connection with the mercurial music of Robert Schumann. As played here, these works exhibit a complete coherence they sometimes seem to lack in other hands. The Concerto, a real warhorse, comes up utterly fresh in this spirited collaboration with conductor Witold Rowicki, with Richter's glorious tone imbuing with pure poetry some figurations that elsewhere sound like note-spinning. With conductor Stanislaw Wislocki, Richter almost makes the Introduction & Allegro appassionato sound like a major work, and certainly reveals all its charm. Perhaps best of all is the overwhelming performance of the Toccata.

The Sofia Recital 1958: Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; works by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff (Philips)

This epic performance of Pictures at an Exhibition caused a sensation. Though the opening contains a distracting finger slip and some smudges, his cataclysmic vision of the work more than compensates. His tone in the mighty final movement, "The Great Gate of Kiev," is so richly sustained, full-toned, and clangorous as to suggest not a piano, but some combination of organ and bells. Smaller works follow: Schubert's Moment musical, D.780 No. 1 and Impromptus, D. 899 Nos. 2 and 4 (raptly intense); Chopin's Etude, Op. 10 No. 3 (poetic); Liszt's Valses oubliée Nos. 1 and 2 and Transcendental Etudes Nos. 5 "Feux follets" and 11 "Harmonies du soir" (a captivating mixture of mercurial spirit and seriousness of tone); Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 13 (a shimmering gem).

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 5; Piano Sonata No. 8; Visions fugitives Nos. 3, 6, 9 with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Witold Rowicki (Deutsche Grammophon)

Richter impressed Prokofiev (an excellent pianist himself) in 1940 by playing his difficult Fifth Piano Concerto. He delineates the dense Concerto (1958) and the Piano Sonata No. 8 (1961) with absolute clarity while giving full play to Prokofiev's wide mood swings, from lyricism to black humor. In the selection of the poetic miniatures Visions fugitives (1962), Richter is unsurpassed, his intense focus, sensitive touch, and finely gradated dynamics making the listener fully aware of every aspect of these brief works.

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor K. 466; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37; Rondo for piano & orchestra in B-flat WoO.6 with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Wislocki and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kurt Sanderling (Deutsche Grammophon)

The Mozart (from 1959, with a slightly scrappy Polish orchestra) is dazzling. It seems like Richter's living on the edge and giving a spur-of-the-moment performance, yet structurally absolutely everything is in proportion. Richter uses Beethoven's cadenza, symbolic of his tendency to interpret Mozart's works with Beethovenian power (though that works quite well in this minor-key work). The Beethoven concerto (from 1962) is flawless on every level, a godlike utterance of thundering intensity in the outer movements and entrancing beauty in the slow movement.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (RCA)

Richter's recording of Brahms' mighty Piano Concerto No. 2 is a Chicago studio recording made two days after his ecstatically received American debut (10/15/60) with the same forces in the same work. Richter's playing is elemental, like a force of nature, storming briskly but never unfeelingly through this highly emotional work in a way that emphasizes its Romanticism rather than the Classicism so many other pianists have focused on. Yet when he lingers in the more sensitive sections, his velvet touch is positively songlike. The mighty Sonata comes from a 1988 concert.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Op. 15; Sonata No. 22 in F Op. 54; Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 "Appassionata" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch (RCA)

Richter said, "Most of all I love [Beethoven's] Piano Concerto No. 1. When I hear an orchestra performing it, I am overwhelmed by a feeling quite unlike anything else, as if something radiant and beautiful had opened up before me." The same feelings will arise in listeners hearing this souvenir of his 1960 visit to the U.S. Richter also said, "I am very fond of Beethoven's early sonatas. They are so fresh, bold and full of youth, so direct and uniquely individual. It always seems to be nighttime in the 'Appassionata.' You can sense nightfall, the stars shining, and something cosmic (in the finale) -- voices communing in space." One is tempted to characterize the voices in Richter's interpretation as gods in fervent debate. Alas, his most stunning performance (Prague, 11/1/59), a heavens-storming performance of huge contrasts, thunderous dynamics, and technically dazzling speeds, is out of print (see below). But it had tinny sound, and RCA's 1960 concert reading, if not quite as intense -- and some might even find that a relief -- is in much better sound.

Rediscovered: Carnegie Hall Recital December 26, 1960 (RCA)

Highlights of this historic concert include Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 6 in a thrilling reading, plus all the Visions fugitives he ever recorded (Nos. 3-6, 8-9, 11, 14-15, 18) in fully psychologically involved performances. Ravel's "Jeux d'eau" and "La Vallée des cloches" (from Miroirs) have great delicacy and poise. Haydn's Piano Sonata No. 60 in C major is played with fleet elegance. Chopin's Scherzo No. 4 and Ballade No. 3 display poetic depth and beautiful tone; the Op. 10 Etudes Nos. 10 and 12 show spectacular derring-do. Also included: some Rachmaninoff Preludes (Op. 23 No. 1, Op. 32 Nos. 9, 10, 12); the Gavotte from Prokofiev's Cinderella; an evanescent "Les collines d'Anacapri" from Debussy's Preludes Book I; a rhapsodic Chopin Mazurka, Op. 24 No. 2.

Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-2; Sonata with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (Philips)

At a time when Liszt's Piano Concertos were often considered shallow -- even vulgar -- display pieces, Richter found in them a profundity and musicality that he and conductor Kirill Kondrashin revealed in exquisite detail without sacrificing excitement. Philips and the artists wisely balance the piano and orchestra realistically rather than subordinating the latter, the result being performances that have more dimension both musically and sonically. The Sonata is a miracle of musical architecture in Richter's hands. For more daredevil but mono and somewhat unruly readings of the Concertos, along with Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy and Chopin's Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise, there are BBC recordings of concerts from slightly earlier in the same 1961 London trip.

J.S. Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I & II (RCA)

In 1972-73 Richter made a conspicuous exception to his tendency to avoid complete cycles by recording all 48 Preludes and Fugues of these revered sets. To ears conditioned by the period performance movement, these Romantic piano readings of Baroque music for harpsichord may seem all wrong, but Richter is never untrue to the purely musical logic found in the notes on the page, making this four-CD set a delight for piano fans. It's an import, but one easily found; don't be fooled into getting RCA's domestic edition of just Book I, which costs nearly as much as the whole set on import.

Out of Later Years, vol. 5: J.S. Bach: Capriccio, BWV 992; French Suites Nos. 2, 4, 6 (Live Classics)

This May 22, 1991 Moscow concert (my most eccentric choice on this list, I suppose) finds Richter playing some works he programmed regularly that year, the "Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother," BWV 992, and the even-number items of the French Suites. Richter plays the ornaments in the Capriccio with casual grace (especially for a pianist of his generation), but nobody will confuse his approach with Glenn Gould's: pathos and drama are in plentiful supply here, as well as rich, rounded tone. This is a reading as compelling as Rudolf Serkin's and as beautiful as anyone's. There are more dance-like takes on the French Suites, but these are hardly stiff, and they are certainly gorgeous.

Four to Search For

Some out-of-print Richter recordings (again, in roughly chronological order) are so good that it's worth scouring used bins and online auctions for them.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-2 with the U.S.S.R. RTV Large Symphony Orchestra (1) and Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (2) conducted by Kurt Sanderling (Melodiya/BMG)

To enjoy these vintage (1955 and 1959, respectively) recordings, tolerance of the mono engineering by the official Soviet record label, Melodiya, is required (Richter remade the Second less compellingly for Deutsche Grammophon but in vastly better sound, also in '59), but worth it for these magisterial, quintessentially Russian performances, full of high drama and exquisite lyricism. Richter's fearless technical skills are also on display, but it's his soulfulness rather than his exactitude that most impresses.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 7, 12, 17-18, 23, 27-29, 31; Diabelli Variations; Rondos, Op. 51 Nos. 1-2; Bagatelles, Op. 126 Nos. 1, 4, 6 (Praga)

All the performances on this four-CD set were taped at concerts in Prague ranging from 1959 to 1986. The Beethoven Piano Sonatas have rarely, perhaps never, received performances more powerful than these, grand and monumental, yet utterly human and broadly varied. Richter's tone is huge, yet he uses a wide dynamic range and excels at quiet passages. His tempos are chosen purely on musical grounds, with no concern for wrong notes, yet even in unedited live recordings, mistakes are few and, aside from a momentary lapse in the "Hammerklavier" (No. 29), inconsequential. The "Appassionata" (No. 23) is especially impressive, arguably his best performance of that or even any work if one is inclined to extremities of interpretation and performance. Richter's rhythmic lilt, vivacity, and -- in the quieter passages -- light touch in the Sonata No. 28 are very special. These performances were also released separately and as part of the 15-CD set Sviatoslav Richter in Prague. Schubert: Piano Sonatas, D.575, 566, 958, 960; Huttenbrenner Variations (Living Stage)

Richter's Schubert has a degree of suspense that's almost unbearable at times, but magically even his slowest tempos are sustained without any slackening of the tautness of the long line. He truly seems to suspend time, as in the Andante sostenuto second movement of the epic last Sonata in B-flat major, D.960. Whether Richter's interpretations are the correct way to play Schubert is debatable, but he is entirely persuasive in the moment. These are concert recordings from 1958-69, all in acceptable sound. 

Richter in Leipzig: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 30-32; Brahms: Op. 118 Nos. 3, 8; Op. 19 No. 3; Chopin: Nocturne No. 4 in F major (Music & Arts)

This 1963 recital is recommended in the strongest terms on account of the set of the last three Beethoven sonatas, played with unsurpassed power and poetry. This is music-making of transcendent nobility, expressing all the profundity of these great works without becoming (as some do) lugubrious. The fugue of the finale of No. 31 is positively hypnotic in its concentration. After this, the four short pieces make a delicious dessert. The concert was recorded by the official East German radio network, so the mono sound is pretty good, though with a slight bit of tape flutter in the first Beethoven.