|August 2, 1997 saw the passing of one of this
centurys foremost poets of the keyboard, Sviatoslav Richter. That he was a titan
when it comes to technique almost goes without saying. To fully appreciate the man as well
as his artistry, you really had to see and hear him in live performance. Those who heard
him play no fewer than five Beethoven Sonatas at one of his first concerts in America in
1960 remember as well that he was prompted thereafter to play no fewer than seven encores,
a feat of graciousness that not even his closest rivals had ever dared to grant. Much has
been made recently about his penchant for brooding during periods of his life when he was
not in thrall of the Muse. Yet this was a man who realized himself greatly by taking his
immense talent to the peoples living in small towns across the vast stretches of Siberia
at an age when many pianists are ready to retire. Maestro Richter was also an artist who
eschewed the controlled comforts of the studio and risked his reputation countless times
by allowing his live performances to be recorded for widespread distribution. It is, in
fact, the singular purpose of this website that you may become an active listener to those
of Richters live performances that you may not yet have had the opportunity to hear.
The son of a Russian mother and of a musician father who emigrated to the Ukraine from Germany, pianist Sviatoslav Richter was born near Zhitomir on 20 March 1915. He was a violinist and coach before perfecting his pianistic skills with the Moscow master teacher Heinrich Neuhaus. At the age of 19, the young accompanist/conductor made his debut in Russia, and shortly thereafter Prokofiev dedicated his Ninth Sonata to him. Richter was a legend in the West even before he finally appeared in Central Europe in the 1950s. His first U.S. concert in 1960, at New York's Carnegie Hall, was preceded by great expectations. His recordings had already caused a sensation: the most prized were his early recordings of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto and Sonata, his thunderous interpretation of Prokofiev's First Concerto, and his dazzling performances of Schumann's and Liszt's virtuoso works.
In 1958, his young American colleague Van Cliburn exclaimed: "This is the most powerful piano playing I have ever heard." His extensive discography is the largest of any other pianist of our time. But he does not merely repeat himself mechanically; each interpretation of a repertory piece is the result of a renewed attempt to grasp the meaning of the work. Heinrich Neuhaus, the legendary professor who taught Gilels, Richter, and countless others, wrote in his book on playing the piano that he had never known a pianist who made such brilliantly intelligent use of his talents. The master of a repertory ranging from Bach to Hindemith, and a leader in chamber-music ensembles, Richter does not have to think twice about technique. He looks behind the facade of virtuosity. What fascinates him is the music, the poetic idea, the large-scale design. Seen in this light, he is an "old-fashioned" pianist. When he made his first appearances, the cool brilliance of technical bravura was still in great demand. He ushered in a change toward colour, pathos, and subjectivity in piano playing. He made it clear that interpretation did not consist uniquely in the execution of the notes.