|From the Electronic Telegraph (UK), 4 July 1998.
HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN REVELATION
Brian Hunt hears how Sviatoslav Richter, the most stubbornly
elusive of pianists, was finally persuaded to discuss his life and
art on camera
YOU think you know what to expect from a video called Richter: The
Enigma, and what you expect isn't very much. In these days of
hype even the cover flash fails to raise expectations: "Includes
rare archive material and Richter's only comprehensive interview."
The uniquely revered Russian pianist, who died last year, couldn't
even be relied on to turn up for his own recitals; so withdrawn
did he become that a single, low-wattage lamp was all he allowed
onstage, rendering his impassive features barely visible to
concert-goers. The chances of Sviatoslav Richter ever having
opened up for the camera seem as remote as one had always assumed
the man to be.
Then you watch, and there he is: smiling, joking, telling his life
story and discussing his art with what appears to be total
candour. Home movies show him larking with friends. Was this man
really an enigma? The truth is incredibly complex. In fact,
every truth connected with the film is, to use an apposite phrase,
a matter of interpretation.
The only person who can fully explain is the film's director,
Bruno Monsaingeon. A large-framed man with a pleasantly generous
and expansive manner, the Paris-based violinist has turned
increasingly to film-making as an alternative form of creativity.
(Menuhin and Glenn Gould have been subjects.)After producers
prompted him to approach Richter, years of negotiation and
relayed, cryptic communications followed - a process familiar to
anyone whoever had dealings with Richter. Eventually, in
September 1995, Monsaingeon received the message: "Maestro wants
Bruno to do his biography."
"I went to see his assistant, Milena Borromeo," says Monsaingeon.
"I said,what does this mean? To film his biography, to write it?"
The question remained unanswered for most of the two-and-a-half
years in which the interview sessions took place. The first
meeting was not easy because he was depressed. He had pain in his
legs from a recent operation and did not know if he would play
again. He told me he had lost interest in everything, so the
stimulus would have to come from me. There was no way of telling
him what I was about and no way of asking what he wanted from me.
I had brought a digital tape recorder. When he saw the microphone
on the table he was horrified. I said, look, Maestro, if you want
to put the record straight I think it would be a good idea. I put
some white flowers around the microphone and he forgot about it."
Richter and Monsaingeon met almost every day for 10 weeks. All
this time the pianist's life-long companion, soprano Nina Dorliac,
kept urging Monsaingeon to do something he was not prepared to
consider: film Richter surreptitiously.Her willingness to set
Richter up was not untypical of the couple's unusual relationship.
"They lived in one dwelling but completely separately," says
Monsaingeon. "His side was pure order, just two pianos and -
nothing. Hers was all higgledy-piggledy. She was always
concerned to behave decently, he relished scandal. He sometimes
felt the need to be provocative when he was with her, because he
felt imprisoned." Another dimension to this "marriage" has
emerged in print since Richter's death: the pianist was
homosexual, an area not entered into by the film.
One day, Monsaingeon found the maestro in high spirits - doctors
had been encouraging - and he plunged in to suggest bringing a
camera to the next session. "His reaction was marvellous.
Nothing negative, just a smiling, 'We'll see, we'll see.'
At that moment, Nina walked in and expressed her pleasure at what
she had overheard. "That was the end of it. He became so
violent, started smashing things up. He did not want to be caught
in a trap. He remained silent for five days. I was absolutely
sure it was finished. I went to England for the premiere of my
Menuhin film; when I got back there were messages from Richter
telling me to come straight away. I went, and he read me his
latest diary entries - concerning my films about Fischer-Dieskau
and Oistrakh." Looks were exchanged. "I thought, why is he doing
this? It must mean something."
By the time the interviews resumed, the 80-year-old Richter was
suffering from the heart disease that would soon prove fatal. In
response to a cry for help from Nina, Monsaingeon installed the
couple in a family flat in Antibes. The French Riviera climate
and proximity of doctors were advantageous for Richter's health;
the layout of the flat was advantageous for installing discreet
On impulse, Monsaingeon had already bought a digital camera no
bigger than a cigarette packet. "At that time nothing else
mattered to me. I was obsessed with Richter - I still am, I
cannot get out of the whole adventure. It was an amateur camera,
which we linked to professional equipment in the kitchen. "It was
difficult to believe he did not know what was going on. We had to
be incredibly precise. We could only shoot between the hours of
three and four in the afternoon because of the light.
We had to position him exactly in frame.
"Then one day there was an extraordinary, hilarious episode. He
was asked by Milena to give her his shirt for dry cleaning. He
said, 'Oh no, it's much prettier for Bruno.' Totally childlike."
Did he mean prettier for Bruno's camera? "I was feeling terribly
embarrassed when I arrived for work that day," admits Monsaingeon,
"I thought I'd been found out. But no mention was made of it.
Then, in the evening, he said to me with a slightly mischievous
smile, 'Did you manage to shoot today?' I said, 'Yes, Maestro.'
Nothing more was said, until his very last days. Then for the
first time he began talking specifically about the film. So I
asked, would you like to see it? We have a rough cut. He said in
a plaintive voice: 'Oh that would be wonderful - I didn't dare
ask.' We watched it in Paris, and he said, in Russian: 'It's
me.' That night we stayed talking in his hotel room until three in
the morning. He was leaving for Moscow the next day, so we
decided to meet again on the second of August. He died on the
The second of August session was to have been spent filling in the
gaps in Richter's faltering, disjointed and haphazard narrative.
As it turned out, Monsaingeon was left with fragments that would
take months of painstaking editing. "Not a single sentence was
grammatically complete," he claims. The result is an intricate
montage of heavily edited soundtrack and archive film -only 12
minutes of the on-camera interview could be used intact in the
two-and-a-half-hour film. Yet it takes us closer to the artist
than any previous document.
The man it reveals is full of paradoxes: at one moment convinced
of his own worth and almost cruelly dismissive of other musicians,
at the next deflated by self-doubt. He professes complete
objectivity as an interpreter yet confesses to theatricality on
the platform. Wounded by early experiences, he has clearly never
grown up, remaining both exasperatingly childish and disarmingly
"It was important for him that he should not be aware of what was
going on," says Monsaingeon, rationalising the covert microphones
and cameras. "It was the same with music. You would have thought
that among all musicians he was one of the most analytical, yet
one of the first things he said to me was: 'There are two things I
hate: power and analysis.' At times I was tempted to call the film
Richter: The Idiot - idiot in the Russian meaning, of course,the
sense of innocence, of candour." Enigma will do, however, and it
is satisfying that Richter remains one to the very end of